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 Letter from Dyedushka
Wed, Sep 11, 2019
Right after their wedding, my parents – Rabbi Moshe and Chasha Vishedsky – were sent by the Previous Rebbe to the city of Gorky (today Nizhny-Novgorod) in Russia, to strengthen Judaism there. This was in the 1930s, when religious freedoms were severely curtailed and the Soviet regime persecuted those who dared to violate their decrees.
However, the Previous Rebbe refused to bow to the regime. He had been imprisoned for his activities, and after he was expelled from the country, he settled in Latvia, from where he directed his activists in Russia. The activists – my father among them – worked under harsh conditions to sustain Jewish life wherever possible; they gave Torah classes, established Jewish schools, supplied kosher meat, maintained mikvehs, etc. All their work had to be done undercover, as the Soviet secret service kept a watchful eye, and they were constantly in danger.
After the Second World War, my parents moved to Czernowitz (today Chernivtsi, Ukraine), where my father continued his activist work, along with Rabbi Mendel Futerfas. But a few years later, as a result of their involvement with a group of young Jews who tried to escape Russia via the border with Romania, they were both arrested and taken to prison.
My father was stopped by NKVD agents as he walked to shul, and I vividly remember them bringing him back home under guard, while they proceeded to search the house. I was just a child at the time and I watched all this gripped by terrible horror. At a certain point my father threw a rolled-up piece of paper to my older sister so it should not be found, but one of the agents noticed and tried to intervene. Despite the volatility of the situation, my sister showed incredible resourcefulness – she quickly stuffed the paper in her mouth and swallowed it before anyone found out what was written on it.
The $430 Mission
Thu, Sep 05, 2019
After I completed my service with the IDF, I was working as a news editor for Shearim, the newspaper of the Poalei Agudat Yisrael political party. During this time, I was undergoing a spiritual search and, living in Bnei Brak, I saw different streams of Judaism being practiced all around me. I visited various chasidic courts, but didn’t feel a sense of belonging.
Then I chanced upon Chabad. I started learning the Tanya, the seminal work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement; I also wrote letters to the Rebbe and I was privileged to receive his personal responses.
In 1960, I met the Rebbe for the first time when I traveled to New York with a group of Israelis who wanted to spend the High Holidays in 770. And then a whole new world opened up for me.
My first private audience took place upon my arrival. My appointment was for 2:30 a.m., but I had a very long wait and was only admitted into his study at 8:00 a.m. By then, the Rebbe had been receiving people for twelve consecutive hours, without even taking a short break, not even a coffee, but he still looked completely alert, and gave me twenty minutes of his time, which I found incredible.
As was customary, I handed the Rebbe a note in which I listed my questions and requests, but the Rebbe did not confine himself to these alone. He took me completely by surprise by asking how my beard was doing.
Two years earlier, the hairs of my beard started falling out and the issue was resolved by electric pulse treatment. Although I had corresponded with the Rebbe about the matter at the time, I was shocked that he managed to remember this so much later. I myself had already forgotten about the whole thing!
Then the Rebbe asked about my journalistic work and expressed the expectation that I would use my position to spread Judaism, especially chasidic teachings – “until they reach the most distant places,” he stressed.
If It’s Good – Do It!
Wed, Aug 28, 2019
Although I was raised in a traditional Jewish home, I did not become Torah observant until age sixteen. That was in 1968, when Rabbi Shmuel Azimov came to France as the Rebbe’s emissary and began doing outreach work with the young Jews of Paris. I was one of those who learned chasidic teachings with him and was greatly influenced by him.
In 1972, Rabbi Azimov brought a group of us to New York to meet the Rebbe. All of us had just taken the Baccalauréat examinations to enter university, but we wanted to go to yeshivah instead because we had become Chabad chasidim by then. So Rabbi Azimov asked the Rebbe on our behalf what we should do.
I saw the Rebbe’s response. It contained two lists of names – those who should go into yeshivah and those who should enroll in university. Those who were to attend university were meant to do Jewish outreach on campus and to also learn in yeshivah part-time. I was in the latter group, and I pursued secular studies – in law and political science, as the Rebbe specified to me – which eventually led to my working for the French government.
During that first visit to New York, each one of us saw the Rebbe in a private audience and was able to ask him our personal questions. These were submitted in advance – in a form of a note called a tzetel. I recall that when I was admitted into his study, the Rebbe had a pile of these notes on his desk, and he plucked mine from out of this pile. I have no idea how he immediately knew which one was the right one among so many, but he did not search for it – he just pulled it out.
And then he answered my every question – at length and in detail – speaking perfect French. At the time I was already doing Jewish outreach and speaking to groups, but I wasn’t sure if I should continue. I told the Rebbe, “I don’t know if I have enough ahavat Yisrael – love of my fellow Jews – to do this work. I find myself looking down at people, and I’m afraid of becoming arrogant. Maybe somebody else should take over.”
My Mind and My Father’s Heart
Thu, Aug 22, 2019
My father was a descendant of the Gerrer chasidic dynasty of Poland, in a direct line from the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Rottenberg. Unfortunately, he was not able to stay in Poland with his people. When he was drafted into the Polish army, he had to run – he escaped to Germany where he married my mother. I was born in Germany in 1930, but after the Nazis came to power – before the start of World War Two and the Holocaust – my parents managed to immigrate to Israel.
That is where I grew up and was educated. Shortly after I got married, my wife and I were offered teaching positions in Brazil, and in the summer of 1956, we moved to Sao Paulo. But things didn’t turn out as we expected. Because of the problems we encountered, I turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for advice, and thus began my ongoing correspondence with him – centered mostly on educational issues and challenges.
After a year, we decided to return to Israel. On the return trip, we stopped in New York to visit my grandmother, and I used this opportunity to meet the Rebbe.
During that audience, we spoke about Brazil and my work there. I also confided in him an idea I had been mulling over of staying and teaching in New York for a bit. Initially, the Rebbe objected, “Is there a lack of teachers here? In Brazil they need teachers more than in New York.” But when I explained that I already found someone to take my place in Brazil, the Rebbe didn’t press me further.
That’s how it happened that we stayed in New York for two years (1957-1958), during which time I taught at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe in Brooklyn. At the end of each school year, I brought my class for an audience with the Rebbe, and the Rebbe delivered a short talk to the boys. In general, throughout those two years I was privileged to have a close connection with the Rebbe, and I would like to share one anecdote that stands out in my memory.
One day, I received a letter from my brother in Israel that my father had suffered a heart attack and that his condition is critical. Although nowadays it is hard to understand this, back then transcontinental telephone calls were rare because of the high cost, so the most common method of communication was by letter, which would take approximately a week to reach the US from Israel. I made the calculation that the letter, which arrived on Thursday, was probably sent on Sunday, meaning that almost a week had passed since the incident, and I was very worried about what might have happened since.
The Day I Got Over It
Wed, Aug 14, 2019
In our work to record the testimony of individuals’ experiences with the Rebbe, we often encounter those who tell us that their encounter was so personal and so private that it cannot be shared.
While we always try to persuade them that it is exactly such personal stories that are incredibly relevant, too many decide to keep their stories to themselves.
We are especially thankful to Mrs. A. for sharing her story with us. Though it was difficult for her to relive this part of her life, she graciously agreed to do so on the condition that her identity not be revealed.
We hope that others who have withheld their stories thus far will be encouraged to emulate her example.
One beautiful sunny day not too long ago, I was taking a ride with a friend of mine – a single woman in her thirties – when, for a reason that I cannot explain, I decided to share with her a very personal story from my life involving the Rebbe, a story which I have not told to others. When I finished talking, she pulled the car over, put her head in her hands and started to sob.
When she calmed down a bit, she asked me, “Why did you decide to tell me this particular story now?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was just moved to speak.”
“You have no idea what you just did for me,” she continued. “My situation is very similar to what yours had been. I, too, have been carrying angry feelings for a long time, and I think this is what has prevented me from getting married until now. Hearing what the Rebbe told you has helped me immeasurably.”
Spare the Rod; Love the Child
Fri, Aug 09, 2019
When the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, visited the Holy Land in 1929, he concluded his trip in Jerusalem, where he received visitors who wanted a blessing from him. My father, who came from a Hungarian chasidic family but had no links to Lubavitch, decided nonetheless to take this opportunity to meet the Rebbe.
“What do you need?” the Rebbe asked him.
My father was already married with children and he wasn’t lacking money, so half-joking, he told the Rebbe: “That my children should be your chasidim.”
“Amen,” the Rebbe responded.
His blessing was indeed fulfilled – today all of my father’s descendants are Chabad chasidim.
I myself studied in Chabad yeshivahs in Jerusalem and, after graduating, worked for a few years as a school counselor at an educational institution for child Holocaust survivors.
Then, a terrible tragedy struck the community of Kfar Chabad. On April 11, 1956, terrorists attacked the village and murdered five students and their teacher while they prayed at Beit Sefer Lemelacha – the trade school catering mostly to the children of new immigrants to Israel. In the aftermath of that terror attack and the painful impression it made on the students, I was asked to come and help the students deal with the trauma they had experienced. I ended up staying on as a school counselor and teacher for many years.
Throughout those years I was in contact – mostly by letter – with the Rebbe who, in 1951, had taken over the leadership of Chabad after the passing of the Previous Rebbe. He constantly showed great interest in every aspect of my work, even inquiring how each particular child was doing. As much as I tried to supply the details, the Rebbe always asked me for more.
Faith as a Foundation
Wed, Jul 31, 2019
I first met the Rebbe in the early years of his leadership of Chabad Lubavitch. It was 1956, and I had been sent from Israel to serve as emissary of the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement in the United States. When a friend invited me to a farbrengen at 770 Eastern Parkway, I went and was most impressed by the event, especially by the Rebbe who spent many hours speaking words of Torah and leading the singing of Chassidic melodies.
Later in the winter of that same year, I was privileged to meet the Rebbe in a private audience. When I arrived at the appointed time, which was very late at night, I was surprised to see such a long line of people waiting to see him, and I wondered: If the Rebbe is busy running Chabad during the day and then meets with people during the night, when does he sleep?
The main topic of our conversation concerned Jewish education. I explained to the Rebbe what my responsibilities as a Bnei Akiva emissary entailed, and I told him that, unlike in formal educational frameworks where the students sit day after day imbibing Torah knowledge, the members of a youth movement only get together on the weekends and just for a few hours. Therefore, we focus on what’s most important – communicating to them the key concepts of faith.
The Rebbe’s responded that, in his opinion, in all types of educational frameworks the main emphasis should be on these essential topics.
I have to say that his message – that the focal point of education needs to be instilling faith and awe of G-d and not just imparting knowledge – is a message that has stayed with me to this day.
We also discussed the mixing of genders at Bnei Akiva gatherings. The Rebbe had grave reservations about this. He said that we had to be aware that such a policy was a disaster. But he added that our programs were preventing an even greater disaster since we were bringing young people closer to Torah. He felt that, under the circumstances, this outcome counterbalanced the danger.
The Pivotal Kodak Moment
Wed, Jul 24, 2019
Growing up, I was a rambunctious child. I was impatient and had a penchant for sparring with authority, regularly testing my teachers in the Chabad yeshivah I attended. In their perceived wisdom, they treated me with “applied psychology,” which was sometimes applied to my personality and sometimes to parts of my anatomy. In another words, they did what they thought they needed to do to keep me out of trouble.
But get in trouble I still did as when I decided, at age eleven, to take a picture of the Rebbe.
In those days – I am speaking about 1958 here – there were few candid photos of the Rebbe because he would frown at picture-taking of him; the only ones available were shots taken by Trainer Studios of the Rebbe officiating at weddings. But I was determined to get my own with my Kodak Instamatic camera.
After one wedding, I waited for him as he came up the staircase to his office. When he emerged, I snapped my photo, setting off the flash which seemed to startle him, and hastily entered the adjacent study hall, pleased with my success.
But the Rebbe cared too much to let this go. Instead of going to his office, he turned in the other direction, following me into the study hall. Suddenly I found the Rebbe looking straight at me with the evidence – my camera – dangling around my neck.
“Who is your teacher?” the Rebbe asked me in Yiddish. When I gave the name, he continued, “Is your teacher pleased with you?” I thought he was, but I didn’t how to say it without sounding pompous, so I just shrugged and said nothing.
“Dein gantzeh Chasidus bashteit in photographia? – Does being a chasid consist just of photography for you?” the Rebbe challenged me.
I didn’t know how to respond to that either, so again I said nothing. At that point, my principal, Rabbi Mendel Tenenbaum, must have spotted that I was in trouble since he appeared out of the blue. “Test him,” the Rebbe instructed Rabbi Tenenbaum, “if he passes, fine, but if not, take away the apparatus.”
Make Judaism Your Business
Wed, Jul 17, 2019
I was born in Melbourne to Holocaust survivors from Poland who arrived in Australia in 1949. My father had been brought up in a chasidic home – his family being followers of the Rebbe of Radomsk – but that chasidic group was decimated during the war, and the survivors did not come to Australia.
Because of his chasidic roots, my father gravitated to Chabad and became very friendly, among others, with Rabbi Zalman Serebryanski, the founder of Yeshivah Gedolah, the Rabbinical College of Australia and New Zealand, as well as with Rabbi Yitzchok Groner, director of Chabad institutions in Australia. Rabbi Groner – whose brother, Rabbi Leibel Groner, was one of the Rebbe’s secretaries – arranged for my parents to have a private audience with the Rebbe in 1970.
My mother did not have a chasidic background so, before the audience, my father explained to her how one should behave in front of the Rebbe, telling her that they shouldn’t sit down and that they shouldn’t speak until spoken to.
When they walked into the Rebbe’s study, the Rebbe invited my mother to take a seat. Having taken my father’s instructions to heart, she remained standing. The Rebbe asked her a second time, but still she wouldn’t sit. Finally, the Rebbe said, “Either you will sit or I will need to stand.” At that point, of course, my mother gave in.
One of the topics my father mentioned to the Rebbe was his recent purchase of a property in Israel, near the Radomsk yeshivah outside of Tel Aviv. My father was surprised when the Rebbe took great interest in this yeshivah, proceeding to elicit every single detail about it. He wanted to know exactly who learned there, who taught there, what was being studied there, etc.
Another topic that came up was my future. My older brother Laibl had gone to university and received a law degree, but then went to work as a director of a Hillel House on campus. (He is presently a well-known teacher of Kabbalah.) My parents were very interested in my attending university also, but the Rebbe told them, “Just as your son Laibl didn’t end up doing what he had studied in university, a very large percentage of people who attend and graduate don’t end up doing what they had initially planned.”
Don’t Stop Now
Wed, Jul 10, 2019
When I was seventeen, the Nazis invaded Poland. After several years, they herded all the Jews of my hometown, Radom, into a ghetto. From there, little by little, most were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp where they were murdered in the gas chambers. My family was among them. I myself was sent to a labor camp from which I managed to escape in 1944, and ever since then, it has been my goal in life to bring the Nazis to justice.
At the outset, I had no idea that I would spend my whole life doing this. I only wanted to devote one year to capturing the SS officers responsible for the Radom ghetto. And I succeeded in this quest. One of the officers, Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Blum, was arrested, tried, and hanged. Additionally, we caught two dozen of his accomplices; they were all tried and they served lengthy sentences.
After one year of this work in Poland, I immigrated to Israel – this was in 1946, two years before the State of Israel was founded. There, I worked covertly with the Haganah. In an operation that lasted seven years, we succeeded in orchestrating the arrests of some 250 Nazi criminals, several of whom were sent to Siberia. We were also instrumental in helping the Israeli government capture Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect of the “Final Solution.”
So what started as a one-year commitment ended up being a twenty-year endeavor, all without a salary. No one was interested in paying me for this work. In fact, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wanted me to stop chasing Nazi criminals altogether. He feared that if we kept at it, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower would curtail foreign aid to Israel. But I protested that the work was not finished and we needed to hunt them down. So I kept at it.
But there came a time in the 1970s when even my wife felt I had to stop. She was an ophthalmologist, the chief breadwinner and the chief financial supporter of my work, but even she thought that I had done enough. At first I was reluctant, but finally I told her, “I will go to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York. I will describe the situation to him and hear what he has to say. If he can’t suggest another way for me to fund my work, I’ll stop and go into business.”