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 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.
The Shabbos Candle Lighting Campaign
Fri, Jun 09, 2017
My name is Esther Sternberg. I’m very fortunate to have been born and raised in Crown Heights. My father, Rabbi Shneur Zalman Gourary, was close to the fifth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber and the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, from the very moment he became Rebbe in 1920; and to our Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from the very moment that he became Rebbe in 1951. So being brought up in this kind of a home, I had a very, very strong feeling for the Rebbe – a feeling of great respect and love. I felt that to be able to do something for the Rebbe, was an honor and a privilege.
On September 11, 1974, a week before Rosh Hashanah when the Rebbe was giving a special blessing to a Chabad women’s gathering, the Rebbe suddenly started to speak about the fact that we live in a time that is very dark spiritually, and we have to bring more spiritual light into the world. He said he wanted to introduce a campaign that would reach every Jewish woman and girl, as young as three years old, and inspire them to light Shabbat candles. And he went on to say that now many women don’t do it — either because they were never taught, or because they came to believe that in America it’s not applicable. He told us that we should go out and find these women — who either never learned to do it or who just stopped doing it – and make sure that they light Shabbat candles to bring more spiritual light into the world.
Hearing him speak, I remember getting very excited about this beautiful idea and wanting very much to do something about it. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. But, as it happened, one thing metamorphosed into another, and I got very involved in this campaign.
The next day, I got a call — as one of the co-presidents of the Lubavitch women’s organization — from the Rebbe’s office that the Rebbe would like for us to prepare an ad to go into a Yiddish newspaper telling the general public about his message — that Jewish women and girls should be lighting Shabbat candles from age three and up. And when I got this call, I was very taken aback because I didn’t know how to put an ad together, especially for a Yiddish newspaper. So I checked around and I was referred to Rabbi Nison Gordon who was an editor at the Yiddish newspaper, Der Tog Morgen Journal. I called him and told him my dilemma. He said, “You know what? Just write down for me what the Rebbe said and bring it to my house, and I’ll take care of it.”
I transcribed what the Rebbe had said, I typed it up, and Rabbi Gordon put together a beautiful ad with which the Rebbe was extremely satisfied, and I got the credit. So I felt very good that I did something for the Rebbe.
An Enduring Marriage
Mon, May 29, 2017
I grew up in a Jewish family that was not Torah-observant and I had no real religious upbringing. I did not become interested in Judaism until my first year of college at the University of San Diego, when I began exploring Chasidic teachings. This eventually led me – in 1971 – to Chabad and to the Chabad yeshivah in New York, Hadar HaTorah.
At Hadar HaTorah, everyone was in awe of the Rebbe. And when it came time for us to have a private audience with him – which usually happened on the occasion of our birthdays – we made spiritual preparations for weeks. We learned the Tanya, prayed, and wrote out our questions or requests in brief letters.
I myself wrote the Rebbe a fifteen-page letter in which I asked him a number of questions. One had to do with changing bad habits. Another had to do with living a life of joy. And a third had to do with a relationship I had with a young woman back in California. She came from a Reform background, and she looked askance at my foray into Chasidism.
In answer to my question regarding changing bad habits, the Rebbe said, “You have to have a firm resolve in your heart of hearts to change any inappropriate behavior. You have to identify what you are doing that is wrong, and you need to avoid those situations which bring about this behavior.” Years later, his answer became the core of my coaching practice. I boil it down to “remove and refocus” – remove yourself from the situation and refocus on what’s appropriate. That is what the Rebbe taught me.
In answer to my question regarding living life joyously, the Rebbe said, “Learn the chapters in the Tanya which deal with happiness.” These are chapters twenty-six through thirty-two in the first part of the Tanya, the seminal work of the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. “Learn them two or three times, and they’ll make a significant difference. You will see that the happier and more joyous you become, the more your capabilities will increase and the more success you will have.” I did as he asked and found that he was right. Today, I call these chapters the “happy chapters,” and they form another part of my coaching practice.
A Soldier’s Wife
Wed, May 24, 2017
In 1973, just before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, I had traveled from Israel (where I was living) to New York to attend my brother’s wedding, and while there, I came to see the Rebbe.
Before the audience was to take place, Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, instructed me to write down my requests on a piece of paper which would be handed into the Rebbe in advance. I did as he instructed – I wrote that I was married with children, that I was teaching in the Chabad school in Lod, and that my children were in daycare which was costing more than the money I was making. I wanted the Rebbe’s advice – should I leave my job and stay home with my kids, instead of borrowing every month to make ends meet?
When I walked into the Rebbe’s office, he had a big pile of letters on his desk and he reached into it to extract my letter – he pulled it out just like that without even looking for it. He read it quickly and then answered my question with this statement:
“I see you are teaching the children of Israel at the school Reshet Oholei Yosef Yitzchak, which is named after my holy father-in law,” he began. “You should know that the education of Jewish children is a conduit for blessing – both material and spiritual – for you and your family for generations to come.”
Then he repeated those words again, and I felt that the audience was over.
It was only after I left that the Rebbe’s words started sinking in. I thought: “The Rebbe is telling me that my job educating children is a conduit for blessings. So clearly, there is only one thing I can do – keep working.” I called my husband, Meir, and after I told him what the Rebbe said, he concurred with my decision.
Before I could return to Israel, however, the Yom Kippur War broke out and the news we were hearing was not good.
My husband was drafted into a combat unit on a moment’s notice and, because I was still in New York, he distributed our children amongst our neighbors and relatives. I was informed that he was sent to the front lines at Ismailia, Egypt but that’s all I knew. I immediately asked Rabbi Groner for another audience with the Rebbe, but he could not schedule it as I had just been to see the Rebbe a few days before. However, after I broke down in tears, he suggested that I wait outside the office and ask for a blessing for my husband when the Rebbe came out.
My heart was pounding, but I mustered the courage to approach the Rebbe as he passed by and make my plea. The Rebbe responded, “When you return to the Holy Land, you will find that all your loved ones are healthy and whole. Be sure to keep in touch with me and let me know the good news. You can call me collect.”
Chasid in Camouflage
Wed, May 17, 2017
My name is Benjamin Blech and I come from a long line of rabbis – in fact, I am the tenth in line to have rabbinic ordination in my family.
My father was a chasidic rabbi – a follower of the Chortkover Rebbe – with a congregation first in Zurich, Switzerland (where I was born) and later in Boro Park. He was also the Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Toras Emes (where I was educated). So my father was also my first and most influential teacher. After Torah Emes, I attended the Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and the Lakewood Yeshiva. I received my rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, as well as a Master’s Degree in psychology from Columbia University. Subsequently, I became a pulpit rabbi – of Young Israel of Oceanside – and also a teacher at Yeshiva University.
I explain my background here because it has a great deal to do with how I came to the attention of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and why, I believe, he selected me for a special mission in the Far East.
The first time I met him was in the 1960s, when I became president of the National Council of Young Israel Rabbis. The Rebbe had called Young Israel and requested that the president of the National Council come to meet him – in order to discuss the issue of Soviet Jewry. Although it was a long time ago, I still remember the awe I felt in coming face-to-face with this Torah giant. I have met many famous and important people, but there was no comparison with any of them and the Rebbe, in terms of the aura of holiness around him.