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 Incredible Midnight Question
Wed, May 22, 2019
While I was studying in the Chabad yeshivah in 770 Eastern Parkway, I came down with polio. This was in 1955, the same year that the Jewish doctor, Jonas Salk, introduced the polio vaccine, but it came out too late for me. I caught a bad case of the disease, which started as a cold, but it progressed from there.
Polio, for those who are too young to remember, was a contagious disease that has since been totally eradicated in the Western World, but it used to kill a lot of people. It disabled the muscles, so the afflicted person could not walk or even breathe, and the standard form of treatment then was to put the sick into an iron lung and hope for the best.
I was taken to the Kingston Avenue Hospital, which no longer exists, but back then was the chief hospital for contagious diseases. I was put into an iron lung, which looked something like a large water boiler, with only my head sticking out. This iron lung did the compression work of my paralyzed chest muscles and thus got oxygen into my body. But I was very, very sick.
The doctor who was taking care of me had an arrogant way of speaking and he told my father and brother, “G-d knows if he’ll live out the next twelve hours.”
Hearing that, they went to the Rebbe and told him what my prognosis was. But the Rebbe just made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “He’ll outlive the doctor,” he declared. And he gave me many blessings for recovery.
I lasted longer than the doctor’s prognosis of twelve hours, but I continued my confinement in the iron lung. My yeshivah colleagues – Kehos Wiess, Mottel Zajac and Berel Baumgarten – had been instructed by the Rebbe to visit me every day to make sure I had kosher food and to put tefillin on me. When the doctor saw them, he said, “Don’t bother with him … Just let him die in peace.” They reported this to the Rebbe who told them the same thing he told my father and brother, “He will outlive the doctor.”
Man on a Mission
Wed, May 15, 2019
In 1963, while serving as a member of the Kiryat Ono Regional Council, I came to the United States on a mission to raise funds for the development of our town.
The history of Kiryat Ono dates back to the late 1930s when it was just a small settlement, but in the early 1950s a refugee absorption camp was established near Kiryat Ono for Jews emigrating from Iraq, Romania, Yemen and North Africa. Eventually the camp and the town merged, becoming a city largely through the efforts of the Regional Council which led a building and development effort. However, if our goals of establishing institutions that would serve our community were to be met, a great deal of money was needed.
Once in the United States, I traveled to Los Angeles where I met a few representatives of the Landsmanshaftn – social organizations of Jewish emigrants from European countries. They contributed to the Jewish settlers in Israel, whose situation in those early years was difficult and who subsisted largely on donations from Jews living abroad. Afterwards, I went to New York, and I asked to meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as per instructions from Mr. Yaakov Cohen, the head of the Regional Council. The purpose of the meeting was to request the Rebbe’s assistance in establishing a religious school in Kiryat Ono.
My family was not Torah observant, but my younger son had decided to become religious; he started wearing a yarmulke and keeping kosher, and he even expressed a desire to study in a Torah day school. But at that time, there wasn’t even a real synagogue in Kiryat Ono and prayer services would be held in an apartment repurposed as a shul, and certainly there was no yeshivah. This was the situation despite the fact that many of the residents were religious or traditional, and they would surely have utilized such services if we had the funds to provide them.
Mr. Cohen asked me to meet the Rebbe to ask for his help with this matter. He had a relationship with Lubavitch dating back to his close friendship with the Rebbe’s brother, the late Reb Yisroel Aryeh Leib Schneerson. They met years earlier when they worked together in the Bloomstein book store in Tel Aviv, and they had kept up a connection until Reb Yisroel Aryeh Leib’s passing ten years prior.
The Art of Saying I Don’t Know
Wed, May 08, 2019
I grew up in a typical Jewish-American family – we were not completely Torah observant, but we were traditional. Although I attended a Jewish after-school program, I had no interest in Judaism whatsoever, and right after my Bar Mitzvah, I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.
My older brother Reuvain, who became religious while in college, tried to influence me, but my ears were closed. At that time I thought of Judaism as superficial and overly focused on social networking, and I was not interested in listening to anything he had to say. But when I was about to enter college – and the Vietnam War draft was hanging over my head – I started to ask questions about the meaning of life, looking to religion for answers. That is when I recalled the one thing of Judaism that still remained with me – the Shema prayer, which declares the unity of G-d – and I turned to my brother who provided me with profound, thought provoking answers to my questions.
Reuvain, who had joined Chabad in Crown Heights, influenced me to enroll in Hadar Hatorah, the Chabad yeshivah for searchers like me, so that I could see if I wanted to become religious.
When I first entered yeshivah in 1971, I was eighteen. And a few months later, for my nineteenth birthday, I merited to have a private audience with the Rebbe, as was the custom in those days.
In advance of the audience, I wrote a letter with my questions and requests and, among them, I asked the Rebbe to help me fix what I described as “my black past.” I wanted to elevate myself, to advance spiritually, and so I felt I needed a way of repairing my past behavior.
Kindness is a Piece of Cake
Thu, May 02, 2019
My ancestors were Ger chasidim from Poland, but my father did a favor for the Previous Rebbe of Lubavitch back in Europe and later, once they both immigrated to America, developed a relationship with him. As a result, my brothers and I were sent to Chabad schools, and we became Lubavitchers.
I was nine years old when I first saw the Rebbe up close. It was just before Yom Kippur, and he was giving out lekach, honey cake, as was his custom. I stood in line and got mine, but as I started walking away, the Rebbe called me back and handed me an extra piece. He said, “Your brothers were here, but they forgot to get cake for your father.” I was astonished – how did the Rebbe know who I was, who my father was, who my brothers were? How did he notice, with so many people waiting in line, that none of us asked for a piece of cake for our father, probably assuming that the other brother had done so?
In fact, this is exactly what happened, and when I got home my brothers were there arguing with each other because of this misunderstanding. However, it all turned out well because the Rebbe was paying attention and anticipating that my father would miss his piece of lekach. This is how deeply and personally he was connected to each of his chasidim.
That was my first encounter with the Rebbe which took place in 1956 when I was nine years old. Four years later, I had my first personal audience – on the occasion of my Bar Mitzvah. At the time, I was struggling to learn the maamar, the Chasidic discourse, as is the custom. My father was very ill then and I had no one to teach me, so I was having a difficult time with it.
When I came into the Rebbe’s office with my mother, the Rebbe asked me, “Have you started learning your maamar yet?”
“Yes, I’ve started,” I answered. “I didn’t get very far, but I started.”
With All Due Respect
Wed, May 01, 2019
During my childhood, my father traveled from Israel to the United States frequently and was away for long periods of time. That is when my uncle, Rabbi Moshe Weber, would take over, educating me and guiding me like a father. He served as the spiritual mentor of Chabad’s Toras Emes yeshivah, which was then located in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Meah Shearim near our home. As a young boy I was very influenced by the lively atmosphere in this yeshivah and became friendly with some of the students.
I was nine years old the first time that I wrote to the Rebbe. I had been sent to study in Bnei Brak, in a Torah academy affiliated with the Ponovezh yeshivah, and I began to question whether I belonged there. Although I wasn’t unhappy, I felt separated from the Chabad way of life to which Rabbi Moshe had introduced me. So I decided to write a letter to the Rebbe, expressing that I liked Chabad very much and that I wanted to be in touch with him. I wrote in innocence, like a child who was trying to make contact with an uncle, and I wrote in secret, not telling anyone about it.
This was because my father – who was a G-d-fearing and learned Jew – wanted to bring me up in a neutral way. He didn’t oppose my having a connection to Chabad; indeed, he had some sort of connection to the Rebbe himself. But he did not want me to become a chasid and, throughout the years, there was friction between us because of this.
As my Bar Mitzvah approached, I wrote to the Rebbe again. At this time I wanted to grow long peyot – the distinctive sidelocks that the chasidim in Jerusalem wore – but I knew that my father wouldn’t like the idea. My father was visiting America then, and not knowing how huge America was, I asked the Rebbe in my letter to please tell my father, if he happened to see him, to allow me to grow long peyot.
My father returned just before my Bar Mitzvah, and I noticed that he was a bit upset and didn’t have much to say to me. Later I found out that my father visited the Rebbe on Motzaei Pesach, following the Passover holiday. During Kos shel Brachah, when the Rebbe distributed wine from his cup, the Rebbe told him, “If your son wants to be careful in his observance of the mitzvot, you should allow him.”
The Drink of His Life
Wed, Apr 17, 2019
For two years, from 1973 to 1975, I was privileged to study – along with a group of young Georgian Jews who had immigrated to Israel – at Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Brooklyn, not far from the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.
Some years earlier, the Rebbe had sent his emissaries to Soviet Georgia to support the Jews living there, and then when these Jews immigrated to Israel, they settled in Chabad neighborhoods and studied in Chabad yeshivahs. But because of the hardships of earning a living at that time, there was a high dropout rate, and many students left yeshivah as teenagers in order to go to work. To remedy this, we were invited to come study close to the Rebbe for a few years.
I was just fourteen at the time and being so far away from my family was very hard on me, but I must say that we were well taken care of. We felt that the Rebbe was personally interested in us; this was evident in the special attention he showed to our group. He saw in us the future of the Georgian community, and we felt his love and care.
Every Shabbat we would come to the Rebbe at 770, as well as for every farbrengen. And it was during the farbrengen at the end of Passover 1974 that something most unusual took place.
As was customary, the Rebbe made Havdalah to demarcate the end of the holiday and gave out wine from his cup – the kos shel brachah – to every person present. This usually took a very long time, considering the size of the crowd, but I stood close to the Rebbe, and so I was among the first ones in line. When I approached him, the Rebbe raised his eyes and looked at me, saying with a smile, “Send this wine to your father.”
I was baffled because I would always do that – I would save a bit of wine from my cup, mix it with a bottle of wine that I bought and send it to my father in Israel with someone going there. I didn’t understand why I suddenly needed to be reminded.
The Gift that Kept on Giving
Thu, Apr 11, 2019
In Long Beach, California, where I live and serve as Chabad emissary, we have a beautiful mikveh – the ritual pool which women use to fulfill the mitzvah of Taharat Mishpachah, the Law of Family Purity. This beautiful mikveh was built because of the Rebbe’s initiative, which started a chain-reaction of building beautiful mikvehs throughout America.
Mikvehs have not always been beautiful – typically, they were utilitarian places, with concrete floors and basic furnishings. Many people thought of them as unpleasant. Of course this perception affected mikveh use, especially by the post-war generation which did not grow up with the same strong commitment to Yiddishkeit as the generation of pre-Holocaust Europe.
So, in the early 1970s in Long Beach, there was little interest in having a mikveh at all. The few women who observed the Laws of Family Purity traveled to Los Angeles – a thirty-minute ride – to use the mikveh there.
Yet, one Sunday morning in the fall of 1971, Rabbi Ephraim Piekarski, another emissary in town, got a call from Rabbi Binyomin Klein, the Rebbe’s secretary, saying that “since building a mikveh in Long Beach is very important, in order to encourage it, the Rebbe is sending an advance of one thousand dollars for this project by special delivery.” Not only that – twenty minutes later Rabbi Klein was on the phone again asking to speak to Mrs. Chana Piekarski. He repeated the same message, saying that the Rebbe insisted that he call again and give the message directly to the wife. That really underscored to us how important this mikveh was to the Rebbe.
But his message took us all by surprise since we had not written to him about a mikveh in the first place. Furthermore, we had no plans to build a mikveh, so we had no idea what this was about.
It turned out that a recent visitor, Mrs. Miriam Popack – Mrs. Piekarski’s mother and one of the coordinators of the Chabad Women’s Organization – had, on her own initiative, written a report to the Rebbe mentioning that there was no mikveh in Long Beach. That is how this matter came to the Rebbe’s attention.
Discuss it with Your Ancestors
Wed, Apr 03, 2019
I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, in a home that was traditional but not observant. However, my parents sent me to a Lubavitch school from the age of eleven where I was greatly inspired by one of my teachers, Reb Shmuel Yelen, and I began to observe more of the mitzvot. By the time I was a teenager, this was causing tension at home as my father and mother were concerned that I would not be able to support myself if I opted to learn in a yeshivah instead of attending university.
I was respectful of them – as is the Torah way – but I also knew my path. So I told them that I planned to defer enrolling in university and would, instead, enroll in the Chabad Yeshivah Gedolah in Melbourne. I did this in 1972 against their wishes. While in yeshivah I won the Australian “Bible Quiz” for which the prize was a trip to Israel to represent Australia in the international Bible Quiz in Jerusalem. At that stage, my parents were proud of me.
After a year in the yeshivah, I entered the University of Melbourne, as my parents wanted me to, while continuing to be involved with Chabad and its outreach activities on campus. I took a break in the Australian summer (which corresponded to the New York winter of 1974-75) and came to Brooklyn, to study for a few months at the Chabad yeshivah there and to meet the Rebbe.
The chasidim did not make such a great impression on me, but the Rebbe was just amazing – he had a regal demeanor yet, at the same time, a great humility emanated from him, and I felt strongly that I was in the presence of a true spiritual leader.
In January of 1975, I merited to have a private audience with the Rebbe. As I was waiting for my appointment, I could feel the emotion building inside me – I was going before a tzaddik to discuss lifelong questions and dilemmas that would affect me and my family, and maybe even future generations. It was definitely a monumental moment for me.
The Elegance of the Spirit
Wed, Mar 27, 2019
Although my mother came from a Chabad family, my father did not. He had come from a Polish background and his Polish passport meant that, after the war, my parents were able to get into the American section of Berlin, and that is where I was born – in the Eschwege displaced persons camp – becoming a bit famous as the first baby to be circumcised there.
After we immigrated to the United States, ultimately settling in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, I was enrolled in the elementary school of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin. During this time, like many of my classmates, I did not have an affinity for the rabbis in my life who all spoke English with a heavy accent, for I found it hard to identify with them.
So it was a surprise when I met the Rebbe in 1955, and he spoke English fluently. My mother arranged that audience for her and me, and I recall that his English was very proper.
I was nine years old at the time, and he tried to engage me, asking me if I wore tzitzit, the ritual fringes. (In my yeshivah, we weren’t taught to wear our tzitzit out so they could be seen.) When I said yes, he asked me how many strings there were in my tzitzit. I said that I didn’t know because I had never counted them.
So then the Rebbe asked me, “Do you ever get money from people?”
I said, “Yes, sometimes.”
“And when you get it, do you count that money?”
“Yes, I do,” I answered.
“Well, if you count money which is only temporary in this life, certainly you should count mitzvot which are eternal.”
Wed, Mar 20, 2019
When I was a young man, I was dispatched by the Rebbe to Israel, along with a group of other yeshivah students from New York. We were to study during the day at the Tzemach Tzedek Chabad synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem and, during the evenings, at Yeshivas Toras Emes in Shikun Chabad in central Jerusalem. And we were also to do outreach work in various locations in Israel.
Before we left for Israel in the spring of 1976, the Rebbe repeatedly spoke about our mission and even said that he was taking personal responsibility for our welfare.
So we set off with great excitement, particularly because we would be in Israel for Purim, and we would get to distribute holiday food packages, mishloach manot, to the soldiers on army bases. We had heard the Rebbe speak many times about the merit of the soldiers who defend the Holy Land with their lives, and therefore we waited impatiently for this opportunity to bring them joy. The packages to the soldiers were from the Rebbe himself – that is, they were funded by him personally – so it was a special honor to deliver them.
When Purim came, I was dispatched with three other chasidim from Israel in the back of a military vehicle to an IDF base near the Arab city of Nablus, known to Jews as Shechem. We were about two kilometers from our destination when suddenly the car stopped. We didn’t understand what was going on because we couldn’t see from the back of the vehicle; we just heard yelling. After a few minutes, the driver came around to tell us that we couldn’t go forward because about twenty meters up ahead was a blockade of stones and burning tires. Also, up on the hill, over a hundred Arab youths were gathering armed with stones, which they started to hurl at us though they were too far away to cause any harm.
The driver would not take responsibility for bringing us across the blockade and putting us in danger. But I tried to convince him that we had no choice; we had to move forward because we were on a mission from the Rebbe.
“It’s too big a risk,” the driver insisted, “anything could happen if the Arabs riot.”