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 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.
The Ambidextrous Audiologist
Wed, Apr 04, 2018
I grew up in a traditional Jewish family in Brooklyn. We were not Orthodox, although we kept much of the Torah. But, when I left home, I began to lead a secular life.
That changed in 1973 when I found myself at the University of Rochester, going for a doctorate in experimental psychology; that is where I encountered Chabad – specifically in the person of Rabbi Nosson Gurary. He came to give a speech at the university, and afterwards I confronted him about certain concepts in Judaism that I felt were very medieval and unscientific. I actually felt bad about doing this, because I thought that when I presented him with the facts, I would make him doubt his faith. But he turned the tables on me – he demonstrated to me that he knew more about these scientific topics than I did.
When I investigated what he said, I found out that he was completely right. And I also found out where he got all that sophisticated scientific knowledge from – the Rebbe.
To make a long story short, my wife and I became close to the Gurarys and the Greenbergs who were the Chabad emissaries in Buffalo, and they brought us along in Yiddishkeit. At some point in 1975, I decided – with Rabbi Gurary’s encouragement – to start putting on tefillin. Although I didn’t have much money as a graduate student, I ordered a beautiful pair and put them on. Two days after I did so, I woke up in the middle of the night to find that my left arm was paralyzed – it felt like a dead fish; I couldn’t move it.
I thought that I had slept with my weight on it and, as the day wore on, it would return to normal, but it didn’t. So, I consulted a neurologist who told me that, if I had pressed on the nerve for too long, it’s possible that it died and would not regenerate itself, or it might regenerate itself, but it would probably take as long as a year before I would regain the use of my arm. The best scenario was that it was not nerve damage but just internal swelling. He recommended wearing a sling for about a week to see what would happen. But a week passed and there was no improvement.
Meanwhile my sister Leah, who at this time was a student at the Machon Chana seminary in Crown Heights, decided to write to the Rebbe about my condition. In her letter she related the three possible outcomes that the neurologist had identified, and she got back a response in which the Rebbe had crossed out the possibility that it would never get better or that it might get better in a year’s time, and he circled “it’s going to get better very quickly.” The Rebbe also advised checking my tefillin.
The Newborn Who Saved Her Mother
Fri, Mar 30, 2018
My story begins when my mother was pregnant with me. She was not far along when she began experiencing terrible pains in her side. This was not my mother’s first pregnancy, and she was no stranger to pain, but this was beyond normal, so she knew that something was terribly wrong.
Of course, she went to the doctor who, after examining her, declared, “The pregnancy is not what is causing you this pain. You have a tumor growing inside of you, and we have to abort this baby and cut out the tumor.” He went on to tell her that there was no other option as the growing baby would jeopardize her life and, even if she continued with the pregnancy, the baby would not be born normal. So total removal of both the baby and the tumor was absolutely necessary.
Imagine any woman hearing this!
But my mother was not any woman. She was very strong – as I always say, she was a verb, not a noun. After discussing the terrible news with my father, she called the Rebbe’s office, where she spoke with Rabbi Hodakov, the Rebbe’s secretary. He communicated with the Rebbe and reported back to her that, first of all, she should not have an abortion, and second of all, she needn’t worry. In fact, the Rebbe said that she will give birth to this child, and that she will see her children married under the chuppah. This meant of course that the baby would live and she would live!
My mother was reassured, but it was not as if she could just put the tumor out of her mind. (When she related this story to my nephew a week before she had a stroke that caused her death, she said, “Even though the Rebbe said not to worry, it wasn’t so simple. Of course, I listened to the Rebbe, but it was not easy.” She choked up as she said “Oif dem darf men hubben emunah in a Rebbin – For this you have to have faith in the Rebbe.”)
Meanwhile, she felt the pain getting stronger and stronger. The tumor was palpable as it continued to grow and endanger her life and that of the baby. Meanwhile, the doctor kept telling her, “You crazy lady – what are you doing?! You want to make your husband a widower? You want to make your children orphans? What are you waiting for?!”
This happened a long time ago, when a doctor was like a god. In those days, a patient never questioned a doctor, who was saying, “This is serious! Your life is at stake. What does a Rebbe know about medicine?!”
Your Son Will Live
Wed, Mar 21, 2018
The story I want to tell begins on September 17th, 1963, when I was three-and-a-half years old. At the time, we were living in McKee City, in Southern New Jersey, where my father had a poultry farm and where he served as the rabbi of the local Orthodox synagogue.
Incidentally, my father, Rabbi Gimpel Orimland, had been educated in Bnei Brak, Israel, where the famed Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was his Torah study partner, and where his teachers were the Chazon Ish and the Steipler Gaon. In other words, he had a Lithuanian yeshivah background, which is as far away from Chasidism as you can get. And this makes this entire story all the more remarkable.
That particular day I had been with my grandmother and step-grandfather and was being driven back home. It was raining hard, visibility was poor, and we were in a car accident. It was a multiple car collision, as the Atlantic City Press reported later, and I went flying out of the windshield together with my grandmother. I landed with my face submerged in a puddle of water and I was drowning. My step-grandfather was killed instantly, but my grandmother managed to crawl over and pull my face out of the water.
I was rushed to the hospital, where they found that my brain was hemorrhaging, and they couldn’t stop it. When my father arrived, he found me unable to see or hear, and unfortunately, the doctors offered little hope for my survival. In fact, they thought I wouldn’t last much longer, and one of them actually told my father to hold off scheduling my step-grandfather’s funeral as he would likely be burying both of us at the same time.
You can just imagine the shock that my parents were in at that moment. Fortunately, the president of my father’s synagogue, a Mr. Gellman, had a brilliant idea, to contact the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a blessing. At first my father demurred – it went against his grain to ask a chasidic rabbi for help – but he was desperate and he had nowhere else to turn.
Later, my father would tell the story of what happened next with a great deal of drama. He said he would never forget it. It was four o’clock in the morning when he placed the call to 770 and was instructed to call back in an hour. It was the longest hour of my father’s life, but then he got to speak with the Rebbe who said to him: “The decree in heaven is over. Your son will live.”
My father was stunned. As he would later say, “This statement lifted my spirits. But I couldn’t stop wondering: how could a person just declare like that: ‘The decree in heaven is over.’ How did he know?” As someone raised in Lithuanian yeshivahs, he couldn’t fathom that a chasidic Rebbe had this knowledge and power.
Wed, Mar 14, 2018
I grew up in Sydney, Australia, in a religious home. After high school, I went to Israel to study in yeshivah for a few years, returning to Australia to enroll in medical school at the University of Sydney. After graduating and completing my medical residency, I married my wife, who is from Melbourne.
Over time, I found myself attracted to Chabad philosophy, which appealed to me intellectually, and I became involved with the Lubavitch community, which was the dominant religious force in Melbourne.
Indeed, it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe who helped me decide to settle in that city. When we first married, my wife and I needed to decide whether to live in Melbourne, where she was from, or in Sydney, where I was from. We wrote to the Rebbe for his advice and received the reply: “Makom dirah kirtzon akeres habayis – your place of residence should be where the woman of the house desires.” And so we settled in Melbourne.
After a time, I was not sure which direction my life should take, so once again I wrote to the Rebbe asking for his advice, and listing four possible options which I had been considering. The first option was to return to Torah study and learn in a kollel for married men; the second was to become a general practitioner; the third was to specialize in some area of general medicine; and the fourth option was to specialize in psychiatry.
In his reply, the Rebbe circled psychiatry and added the words “kdima l’efsharut zu – this option should take precedence.” I followed the Rebbe’s advice and enrolled in psychiatric training. And I have been in psychiatric practice now for over forty years.
When I graduated, the preeminent mode of treatment was psychoanalysis. This school of thought tends to see people’s psychological problems as rooted in the traumas and experiences of the past. The therapist’s role is to facilitate an exploration of those experiences, the idea being that understanding the roots of their problems will help patients to heal. This technique involves many sessions a week for several years.
The Midnight Call
Wed, Mar 07, 2018
My parents were refugees from Poland who met and married in a displaced persons camp in Germany – a place called Foehrenwald, just outside of Munich. Unfortunately, my father did not live long; he died when my mother was pregnant with their first child – me. So I was born in a DP camp to a widow.
My mother never remarried, but eventually she brought me to the United States, and we made our home, together with my grandmother and my aunt, in New York.
When I was eight years old, my mother went looking for a yeshivah for me, but all she could afford was ten dollars a month, when the going price was more like twenty-five dollars a month. She went from yeshivah to yeshivah and could find nothing, until she came to the Lubavitcher yeshivah. There, after hearing her story, they offered to take me in for free. But she wouldn’t accept that, so finally a deal was struck that she would pay five dollars a month. That’s how I became a Lubavitcher.
I was very happy at the Lubavitcher yeshivah. The teachers there were extremely kind, warm and giving. They were chasidim from the old world who honored the Rebbe with how they taught the children.
I had my first private audience with the Rebbe in 1964, when I was fourteen. At the time I was suffering from a chronic disease called ulcerative colitis, which causes painful inflammation of the intestinal lining, and the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Mendel Tenenbaum, told me to go see the Rebbe about it.
I was very intimidated walking into the Rebbe’s office – it was just a very awesome feeling to be in the same room with him. But his smile broke all barriers. The kindness was plain to see on his smiling face.
When I told the Rebbe why I had come, he said, “Ask a doctor if it’s a good idea for you to eat rice. Tell him that a friend has told you to eat rice.” He called himself my “friend” and I was elated. I was a fourteen-year-old boy with no father, and suddenly I had a friend in the Rebbe. It was truly amazing.
When I related this to my mother, she immediately started feeding me rice. She believed in the wisdom of the Rebbe, and if the Rebbe said rice was good for my condition, well, she would make sure I had plenty of it. So I ate rice and, for at least seven years, I experienced no recurrence of the colitis.
The Midnight Call
Wed, Feb 28, 2018
Rabbi Mendel and Mashi Lipskar, the Chabad emissaries whom the Rebbe sent to South Africa in 1972, were instrumental in my becoming Torah observant. After a time, they suggested that I would benefit from learning at Machon Chana in Crown Heights. I took their advice, and it proved to be an amazing experience that lasted two years. The highlight was developing a sense of closeness to the Rebbe. Though I never had a chance to meet him in a personal audience, I attended all his farbrengens (public addresses) and wrote to him often.
In the midst of my studies I returned to South Africa to visit my family. As I was making travel plans to go back to Crown Heights, my brother urged me to make the trip via Israel. He had spent time in Kfar Chabad there and felt that it may be a good place for me to find my marriage match. I was not convinced, so I wrote to the Rebbe to ask his advice. In my letter I
said that I didn’t want to go to Israel and would only go if I knew that I would meet my beshert (true partner) there. In response, the Rebbe underlined the word beshert and wrote next to it “nachon,” meaning “correct.”
So I went to Kfar Chabad, and that’s where I met my husband, a yeshivah student from Australia. We were married in South Africa in December of 1977, after which we returned for a time to Kfar Chabad, as the Rebbe had given my husband a blessing to continue his Torah study in a kollel for married men.
Fast forward to my third pregnancy, as this is the story that I would like to relate here.
I was approximately six months pregnant with my son Danny when, after a routine exam, the doctor said to me: “I’m sorry to tell you, but there is something wrong with your baby’s heart. I would like you to see a cardiac pediatrician as soon as possible so that he can do a proper ultrasound scan and give us more information.”
I did this right away. The cardiac pediatrician said that the baby had a very serious condition called “Fallot’s Tetralogy,” which includes four significant heart defects, one of them being a large hole in the heart. I was naturally extremely upset, and the doctor’s announcement that this was the first time he had seen this condition in utero and he would show my scan to all his medical students did nothing to reassure me.
I phoned my family doctor, Dr. Rodney Unterslak, who suggested that I immediately write to the Rebbe, which I did.
Charity Begins at Home
Wed, Feb 21, 2018
When I was ten years old, my family escaped Russia, together with many other Lubavitcher families. This was right after the war in 1946. We made our way, via displaced persons camps in Europe, to Australia. There I studied and also taught in a Chabad yeshivah in Melbourne, but all the while I yearned to go and learn overseas.
The idea of going overseas, to some exotic place, really appealed to my young mind. I was sure it would be better than Australia though I realize now that many consider Australia highly exotic. So, I wrote to the Rebbe asking permission to leave, but he didn’t answer my letters even though I wrote several times. Then, my mentor, Rabbi Abba Pliskin, agreed to petition the Rebbe on my behalf. The Rebbe’s answer to him came immediately, and it was quite lengthy.
In brief, the Rebbe was against my leaving Australia. He explained that there is a mitzvah that nobody else can do, of spreading Judaism in Australia, and the proof that this is my mitzvah is that nobody else is doing it. He quoted the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, “If one does charity – material charity and charity in the spiritual sense (meaning giving of his time to teach others), then his mind and heart will become crystallized and refined one-thousand-fold.”
“In other words,” the Rebbe concluded, “the hour that this boy (meaning me) learns in Melbourne, along with teaching others, will bring him as much success as if he had learned one-thousand hours.”
Later on, when I was nineteen, I organized a trip to New York for the High Holidays, so that I could meet the Rebbe. This was a huge undertaking as the cost of such a trip in 1955 was 600 pounds which was equal to a year’s wages for a laborer in those days. I managed to save up some money and I raised the rest.
When I met the Rebbe – the night before Rosh Hashanah – I asked if I could stay in New York, but the Rebbe responded, “You only just arrived. We will discuss it later, when you are ready to return.” So it was already clear to me that I would be going back.
Sure enough, at the end of my trip, the Rebbe said I had to go back, and I had to go now, this night. I protested that there were no flights tonight, but the Rebbe declared, “You can go by train.”
How does one go from the United States to Australia by train? It turned out that the Rebbe wanted me to go to Montreal by train before returning to Australia by the route that I had previously planned, which included stops in London and Paris. In all these places I was to organize a farbrengen and speak words of Torah and explain Chasidic teachings. He also outlined my mission when I returned to Melbourne – I was to establish a number of Chabad groups: Tzeirei Agudas Chabad (the youth organization), Bnos Chabad (the girls’ organization), Nshei Chabad (the women’s organization), etc.
Wed, Feb 14, 2018
I was born in 1950 in Brownsville, which adjoins Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Making ends meet was difficult for my Holocaust survivor parents so from an early age, I started taking on after-school jobs to earn money for items I wanted, like a toy or candy, a bicycle or a suit.
One of my jobs was delivering groceries. I’d take a baby carriage, load it up with an order, and
bring it to the customer’s house. The grocer, Mr. Stillerman, would pay me a quarter, and I also got tips from the customers themselves – ten or twenty cents. Usually, at the end of the week, I’d have five dollars, which was a lot of money in the early 1960s when you could buy a suit for twenty dollars.
One of Mr. Stillerman’s regular customers was Rebbetzin Chana who lived on President Street; she was the Rebbe’s mother.
On one occasion, when I went there, the Rebbe himself opened the door. He looked at me and asked, “What do you have there?” I replied, “I have groceries… from the grocery store.” While I was bringing in the boxes – there were quite a few – I saw that the Rebbe took off his long jacket, his kapote, and began unpacking everything. He had a list of the things his mother had ordered, and after making sure it was all there, he began putting it all away.
When he finished, he gave me a ten-dollar tip. I tell you I was in shock walking out of there. Nobody had ever given me such a large tip before!
When I went back outside, several chasidim were standing there, and they asked me, “Did you get a tip from the Rebbe?” I told them I did. When I showed it to them, one chasid offered, “How about we take this ten, and we give you a twenty for it.”
It was the deal of the century as far as I was concerned. It usually took me a month to earn twenty dollars! I ran home very excited to tell my mother all about it. Immediately we set off for Flamm’s, the clothing store, to buy the suit that I had been eyeing for a long time.
When my father returned from work and saw the suit, he wanted to know who had won the lottery. So I told him about the Rebbe’s tip and what happened afterwards with the chasidim. Needless to say, although not being a Lubavitcher chasid himself, he was not very happy about it.
Two weeks later, my father took me to the Rebbe’s farbrengen. At the end of the holidays, the Rebbe would pour out wine from his cup – it was called kos shel brachah – and we got in line for it. When we reached the front, my father asked the Rebbe, “Do you recognize my son, Avraham Yitzchak?” The Rebbe smiled and responded