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 Survivor Who Wouldn’t Sit Down
Wed, May 16, 2018
The story I would like to relate concerns my father, Sam Moss, more than me. My father was born in Munkatch, Czechoslovakia, what is now Mukachevo, Ukraine. There he attended the yeshivah of Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira, author of Minchas Elazar, who was the Munkatcher Rebbe.
In 1944, the Nazis herded the Jews of Munkatch into a ghetto, from where they were taken to Auschwitz and later transferred to Dachau. There they endured unspeakable trials, and at one point my father got very sick and was near death, but he was saved due to my grandfather’s intercession with a kitchen hand, Oscar Heller, who slipped him extra food which helped him recover. After the war, he made his way to Australia, where he married and built up a very successful textile business. I was born in Sydney, as was my brother.
Because of his war experiences, my father was not religious. Indeed, between the time of liberation until 1956, he never even walked into a synagogue. He was just so angry with G-d because of everything that had happened to him. Only when I, his first son, was born, did he set foot in a synagogue for my brit.
His travails continued when my mother passed away at age thirty-eight, at a time when my brother and I were teenagers. This happened just when my father thought he had gotten his life back together, and it made him more bitter and drew him even further away from Judaism.
Then, to my father’s chagrin, I became Torah observant, and after finishing high school, enrolled in the Chabad yeshivah in Melbourne. This really upset my father, because he had rejected all that. Now his son was wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit! This was just too much for him.
An Accountant Becomes a Soldier
Wed, May 09, 2018
I was educated in England as an accountant and then went into business in London. My cousin Stanley Kalms – who is now Lord Kalms – got me a job as the finance director at Dixons which had been founded by his father. At the time, it was still a private company but I took it public, and it has since become one of the largest consumer electronics retailers in Europe.
Around that same time in the early 1960s, Rabbi Faivish Vogel came to London as the Rebbe’s emissary. He saw an advertisement that I had put in The Jewish Chronicle, announcing the birth of my third daughter, Penina, and he contacted me. We became quite friendly, and as a financial manager, I helped him set up the Chabad infrastructure in England. As a result of our association, I grew close to Chabad and three of my youngest daughters were enrolled in Chabad schools and eventually married Chabad boys, two of whom are emissaries out in the world.
Obviously, Rabbi Vogel talked to me about the Rebbe all the time, and he was very keen that I should meet him. “Faivish,” I said, “I believe that the Rebbe is a great man. But I have no problems financially or personally, so I have no need to take up the Rebbe’s time.” To which he responded, “Do it as a favor to me.” So I did.
During my first audience in 1965, the Rebbe and I spoke mostly about what Rabbi Vogel was doing and what was involved in setting up Chabad of England. And then the Rebbe made a very interesting observation; he reminded me of a very basic accounting requirement of balancing the books: that the right side of the ledger must balance the left side, and so it should be in one’s life. Yes, there should be commercial or secular activity, but the Jewish activity of learning and awareness should balance that and be equal to it. He also mentioned that among the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, there are small ones and large ones, but all have to be kept if you want the account to be right.
Don’t Abandon Ship
Wed, May 02, 2018
My father, Rabbi Shabsi Katz, was born in Lithuania to a Chabad family. When he was a small child, he came with his parents to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was educated until he reached yeshivah age – at that point he went to London to attend Jews’ College (now called London School of Jewish Studies) where he eventually obtained his rabbinic ordination.
When he returned to South Africa, he married my mother and took up a position as the rabbi of Pretoria, the capital city. This was in 1954. And that is where he stayed until he passed away in 1991.
Because of his Chabad background – though he was educated as an English rabbi – he developed a friendship with the late Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, the famous Chabad “globetrotting rabbi,” who persuaded him that he should meet the Rebbe.
Once he did so, he became strongly connected to the Rebbe and made many trips to New York to seek the Rebbe’s advice on apartheid, his role regarding that issue, and many other issues.
At his first audience he was accompanied by my mother, and I recall both of them speaking about that experience many times. Uppermost in my father’s mind was concern about the future as South Africa was in the throes of unrest then, and he wanted to know if perhaps our family should leave.
The Rebbe responded that he was aware of all the problems in the county. “As Jews, we know what it means to suffer under a system that makes you into second class citizens,” he said, “And we can never condone such a system.”
He spoke favorably of Helen Susman, the feisty Jewish member of the South African parliament who had challenged apartheid, quoting some of her speeches and saying that we should be proud of the fact that we are represented in that way because that is the Jewish way.
A Prouder, Safer Israel
Thu, Apr 26, 2018
I was born to a traditional Jewish family in England, where I grew up. I studied law at University College in London and then at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since 1969, I have lived in Israel where I spent many years as a military prosecutor in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, as well as serving as a legal advisor to the IDF on issues of international law and human rights law, following which I moved over to the Foreign Ministry as a legal advisor.
During my time with the Foreign Ministry, I was sent to New York, where I worked for four years as a senior legal officer to Israel’s UN Mission.
During that time Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu was ambassador to the United Nations, and I used to accompany him whenever he would visit Jewish religious venues and, in one instance, to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Part of the real reason why Bibi wanted to meet the Rebbe was the strong connection that all Israeli ambassadors and foreign ministers and prime ministers had with him. At the time, Yitzchak Shamir was prime minister, and he had appointed Bibi as ambassador to the United Nations. Shamir had been in contact with the Rebbe, and I assume that he recommended that Bibi pay him a visit.
When we came, it was Simchat Torah during the Hakafot ceremony. We were brought straight up to Rebbe, and he talked with Bibi and myself for about forty minutes, which I found extraordinary.
During the entire exchange – and this also impressed me immensely – the Rebbe spoke to us in perfect Hebrew. That is, not in biblical Hebrew but in regular modern Hebrew, in which he was obviously very fluent.
The discussion concerned Middle East security. At that time, Shamir was involved in negotiations to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon, and the question of whether Israel would withdraw or not was still open. Ultimately, Israel did withdraw, but the Rebbe was very insistent that Israel shouldn’t do it at that moment in time. (At the outset of the war, the Rebbe had urged Israel to eliminate the terrorists quickly and forcefully and then to pull out of Lebanon, but in late 1984, when this meeting took place, pulling out was a retreat of sorts.)
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.