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!
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.
The Joy of Children
Wed, May 10, 2017
I was not born into a Lubavitcher family. I was educated in the Torah Vodaas school system in Brooklyn. I did my advanced studies at the Mir Yeshiva from 1952 to 1957 receiving rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz.
However, I became a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe because of what happened to a schoolmate of mine. His name was Dovid Shlamyug, and he was a fluent Spanish-speaker from Uruguay. Dovid had a dream to go to Mexico City and open a yeshivah high school something that did not exist in that city. He felt there was a tremendous need for it. He sought the advice of many rabbis in our yeshivah and every one of them told him not to go. And then he went to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Next thing I see is Dovid packing his bags. When I asked him what happened, he explained: “The Rebbe advised me that not only should I go and open a yeshivah , but I should do so immediately. I should get going now and arrive in Mexico Citybefore Shabbat.”
He went and he succeeded; as far as I know that yeshivah is still in existence today. I was so impressed by what happened with him that I resolved to seek the advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe if any life issues came up for me.
And of course they did.
One involved a job offer to be the head of the Talmud Torah at Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach. When I told this to the Rebbe during an audience, he gave me the following advice:
“The main job of a Jewish educator is not to convey information, but to instill in his students a fear of Heaven. But to do this, the educator must fear Heaven himself.”
Then he asked: “How can you make sure this is true of you?” In answering this question, the Rebbe used the following analogy. “There are two kinds of water wells,” he said. “One kind is filled from an underground spring, and it never runs dry. Another kind is a cistern which is filled with rain water. This type will run dry if the water is not replenished. An educator is akin to the second type, and he must always be replenishing the water – that is, the fear of Heaven – within himself so he does not run dry. And I want to give you a blessing that you should succeed in constantly replenishing yourself and in conveying a fear of Heaven to your students.”
The Young Role Model
Wed, May 03, 2017
I was born in the USSR in the decade after the Holocaust, shortly after the death of Stalin. By then, there was no day- to-day fear for the Jews of being killed or sent to death camps. By then, the fear was of being persecuted simply for practicing Judaism.
Nevertheless, largely through my grandfather’s efforts, we got a Jewish education, and we stayed loyal to Torah. In 1971, we had the opportunity to get out, and we took it. We came to Israel, where we had relatives, and settled in Kiryat Malachi. I had just finished high school in Russia, and now I enrolled in a language school to learn Hebrew, with the intent of continuing on to university.
At this time, many people were telling my father that his daughter should not be going to the university — that it was not right, not proper, for a religious girl to do this. My father was conflicted and didn’t know how to guide me. Meanwhile, I was determined to get a university education and had enrolled in a preparatory course. But also, I didn’t want to hurt my father or go against him. So, when the opportunity came to visit New York and see the Rebbe – who, I knew, had studied in universities in Paris and Berlin – I seized the chance. I was sure the Rebbe would understand me and also help me put my father’s mind at rest.
In advance of the audience, I wrote a long letter to the Rebbe in Russian, explaining my situation and pouring out my heart. And when I walked into the Rebbe’s office, my letter was lying on the table in front of him. This I remember vividly.
I had been very anxious before this meeting but, in the Rebbe’s presence, I felt calm and comfortable. He was smiling when he started to speak, using a very elegant, poetic Russian. I had only heard this before from very few people who came from
aristocratic families. No one speaks like this anymore. He said, “The university in the modern Western World is not anything like the university was in Europe before World War Two. Back then, the university placed a great deal of value on pure study.
Today it’s not like that. Today, people go to university for the atmosphere and the social groups, while simply acquiring enough knowledge necessary for whatever profession will generate the most income for them.”
At this point his smile grew wider. “But from your letter, I see that is not the reason you want to go.” And, of course, he was one-hundred percent correct.
A Channel for Blessings
Wed, Apr 26, 2017
I grew up in Montreal, where I was educated in the Chabad yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim. In my youth, the availability of kosher products in the city was very limited and so my father, a kosher butcher, opened the first glatt kosher meat market in the city. He did this at the direction of the Rebbe, and the business quickly prospered thanks to the Rebbe’s blessing.
In connection with opening this business, my father had a number of meetings with the Rebbe, and he traveled several times to New York. He took me along in 1954, on the occasion of my Bar Mitzvah.
I recall coming into the Rebbe’s office with my father, and feeling as if I was being x-rayed by the Rebbe’s eyes, as if he could look through me and know everything that I did from beginning to the present. Yet, when he started to speak, his voice was very soothing and my nervousness disappeared.
The Rebbe invited my father to sit down, while I stood of course, out of respect for them both. The Rebbe then asked me what I had seen on Eastern Parkway – the street where Chabad Headquarters is located.
I didn’t how to answer the Rebbe, and I wondered if this was meant to be some kind of trick question.
“What did you see?” the Rebbe repeated.
“I saw people,” I muttered.
“You didn’t see trees?” the Rebbe prompted.
“No, I didn’t pay attention to the trees,” I admitted, though in fact the medians down the middle of Eastern Parkway are full of trees, and there are also trees along the sidewalks on both sides of the street.
“If you would have paid attention, you would have noticed that there are two types of trees planted along the parkway. One tree grows by itself because it has strong roots, but the other needs a fence around it to support it and help it grow straight and tall. You should learn from the tree that has strong roots. If you are steeped in Torah the way a son of a family with strong religious roots ought to be, then you too will grow up strong, for as our rabbis say, a tree with strong roots can stand up to any storm and no winds can tear it down.”
Wed, Apr 19, 2017
In the late 1970s I was living in New York, studying for my Masters in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, from where I received my rabbinic ordination. At the time, my uncle, David Shine, was also living in New York while directing the North American branch of El Al. His job was to oversee all of the El Al departments in the United States, although his main focus was the New York/Tel Aviv connection.
At some point we met up, and he suggested that we go visit the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway and see a Chabad gathering. My uncle was a Holocaust survivor, who was not observant in the slightest and didn’t even consider himself to be a believer in G-d. But he had many contacts in the Chabad community, due to the Chabad presence at the airport, where the chasidim sought to reach out to their fellow Jews near the El Al gates. He respected what they were doing and, whenever he had a chance, he would help them in any way he could.
Even though I didn’t have any prior associations with Chabad, I accepted his invitation and decided to go with him to see the Chabad gathering. It was when we arrived that I realized I had never seen something like it before. There were thousands of chasidim in the hall focused on the Rebbe, who sat at a large table in the middle, speaking words of Torah. My uncle didn’t come as a manager of El Al, rather he arrived as a simple person without any fanfare and, together, we blended into the large crowd.
It was a sight to behold – thousands of people crushed together, captured by the Rebbe’s personality and listening to every word that came out of his mouth. Between the Rebbe’s discourses, they would raise their cups, and the Rebbe would say l’chaim! Despite the large crowd, one could tell that every person felt as if the Rebbe was talking just to him. When we left, my uncle was very excited; he said, “You know what, let’s keep in touch and come back here another time.”