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 Reluctant Philosopher
Wed, Dec 13, 2017
I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, in the middle of the Great Depression, in a Jewish environment that was predominantly Reform. But, when my father passed away in 1943, right after my Bar Mitzvah, I began to attend the local Orthodox synagogue in order to say Kaddish for him. Then, after the year of mourning ended, I continued to participate in the minyan. As well, I started keeping Shabbat – which was a challenge when I had to miss playing with my team in a basketball tournament, but I persevered.
In 1949, Rabbi Zalman Posner, a Chabad emissary, came to town and ignited within me an interest to seriously study Torah texts. At that time I was attending Vanderbilt University, where I was also seriously studying philosophy.
And that is where my story begins.
Through the intercession of my mentor at Vanderbilt, Professor Arthur Smallion, I was accepted to Harvard University for graduate studies in philosophy. But I wasn’t sure that I should go there – a university in Edinburgh, Scotland, had also accepted me and that exotic location appealed more to me. Meanwhile, I decided to spend my summer vacation of 1952 at the Chabad yeshivah in New York.
While there, I had my first audience with the Rebbe.
Very Old Wisdom for a Very Young Man
Thu, Dec 07, 2017
I was born in 1941 in New York to a Lubavitch family. I was nine years old when Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Previous Rebbe, passed away, but it wasn’t till I turned ten that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the Rebbe and formally took over the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch.
What I remember about him from that time is that he was always busy. He wasn’t a person who would sit around and chat. He was always doing something. When I saw him walking in the street, his mouth was always moving, as he recited words of Torah. He never wasted a moment.
The other thing I remember is that he refused to stand on ceremony. Although he was not yet the Rebbe, people were already treating him as such and – out of deference – trying not to shake hands with him. But he wouldn’t have it, and he’d extend his hand to them. I remember that once, on a Shabbat during the period between the previous Rebbe’s passing and his formal acceptance of the leadership, he gave me his hand, but I wouldn’t shake it. He said, “What is this? You also?”
“I’m working on being a chasid,” I responded, and he broke out in a wide smile. At that moment my connection to him began, and I became a chasid of the Rebbe. From then on he took a serious interest in me, shaping my learning as well as my life.
In 1952, the Rebbe gave Chanukah gelt to people who were studying Chasidic teachings. The Rebbe called my father into his office and asked him if he was learning Chassidic teachings with me. My father wasn’t, and he justified himself by saying, “But he is still a young boy.” The Rebbe didn’t accept that. He said, “You must teach him,” and he suggested that we start with a discourse from Likkutei Torah entitled Adam Ki Yakriv, which is a customary entry point into Chasidic philosophy. He also gave my father a silver dollar which I was to receive after learning the discourse.
The Filmmaker’s Vision
Wed, Nov 29, 2017
As a kid, I used to love reading books. In fact, I opened my own home library at the age of seven. And that’s when it started. One morning, I just got up and I could not open my eyes. In a panic, I ran to the bathroom to try to put some water on my eyes, but that didn’t help. My eyelids were glued shut.
My father – who himself was a doctor at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem – took me to the emergency room and, after a series of tests, they discovered that I was suffering from a very rare eye disease – in a nutshell, I was allergic to the sun.
From then on, for several years, when I woke up every morning, my eyes were glued shut. I would have to apply various creams and solutions to open them again. This took a long time. I had to get up at about 6:00 in order to open my eyes by 7:30, when I would have to get ready for school. I had to do this morning after morning.
My father sent me to every eye specialist he knew. But nothing any one of them tried helped. My sun allergy meant that any exposure to the sun would cause my eyes to swell up, and I would feel a sharp pain like someone jabbing me with needles. Besides that, my eyes were always itching and tearing.
I had to wear special sunglasses prescribed especially for me and, wherever I went, curtains had to be drawn the entire time I was in the room. At school, I was subject to mockery for a long time, though after a while the kids got used to me and my unusual appearance.
Mediating Between Heaven and Earth
Thu, Nov 23, 2017
My story begins in 1972.
At that time, I was a gutsy but confused young student who had recently been arrested and briefly imprisoned by the South African police and was standing trial for anti-apartheid activities. I also fancied myself as something of a spiritual activist promoting a particular Indian meditation technique. As well, I had begun to investigate a more inspired form of Judaism than the mediocre Jewish education I had received which ended with my Bar Mitzvah.
And that is when Rabbi Mendel and Mashi Lipskar arrived as the Rebbe’s emissaries to South Africa. I began receiving weekly Shabbat invitations to their home and to the homes of other members of the then tiny Chabad community. The warm atmosphere and the rich and wholesome environment in which their children were being brought up inspired me and modelled the type of home that I, in due course, hoped to establish.
After a while, Rabbi Lipskar suggested that I and a friend of mine spend a year or two in yeshivah. He wrote to the Rebbe, who responded that my friend should go to yeshiva immediately. I, however, was told to complete my undergraduate degree and then study in yeshiva in Kfar Chabad under Rabbi Zalman Gafne. But for Rabbi Lipskar’s suggestion – and the Rebbe’s endorsement – it would never have entered my mind to attend a yeshiva.
Rabbi Lipskar also suggested that I ask the Rebbe whether my meditation technique was compatible with Judaism. The Rebbe wrote back, recommending that I embrace Jewish prayer instead:
“It is hardly necessary to emphasize that the benefit you will get from the observation of tefillah three times a day is a true and lasting benefit, and incomparably greater to any benefit that one can find in strange pastures, G-d forbid …
From Paralyzed to Mobilized
Wed, Nov 15, 2017
I was born in India to a Persian family. But when I was two, we moved to England, where I was educated and lived until age eighteen – that’s when I got married and moved to Italy. And it was there that I was introduced to Chabad.
My connection with the Rebbe begins in 1977, when my husband, Benyamin, took ill.
He had been travelling to the Far East on business and, when he returned to Milan, I noticed that he wasn’t well. At first, he insisted that nothing was wrong until one morning he woke up paralyzed from head to toe. I took him to the hospital where they kept him for a whole month, and he still couldn’t move – he couldn’t even chew. He could only swallow soup, which I would have to bring to him daily.
The doctors didn’t know what was wrong, and they kept doing tests and telling me, “Signora, until we find out what’s wrong, we cannot help him.”
I was beside myself with worry, and I confided in Rabbi Moshe Lazar, who was the Rebbe’s emissary in Milan. He asked very gently, “Would you like a blessing for Benyamin from the Lubavitcher Rebbe?”
I’m ashamed to say now that I thought then, “How can a man in New York help my husband here in Milan?” But I figured what harm can it do? So, I gave his Hebrew name “Benyamin ben Esther.” I certainly didn’t expect anything to happen.
The next day, I walked into the hospital with my pot of soup and almost dropped the whole thing on the floor, because there was my husband walking towards me – no longer paralyzed, not in need of crutches, just walking normally!
A Nuclear Response
Thu, Nov 09, 2017
I am a descendent of an illustrious rabbinic family, and the son of a rabbi who served the South African Jewish community for most of his life. So it was clear to me from an early age that I, too, would become a rabbi. I was educated at the Gateshead Yeshivah in England, and also at Kfar Chassidim and Mir Yeshivah in Israel, where I received my rabbinic ordination.
However, as soon as I entered the rabbinate of South Africa, I became concerned about retaining my intellectual independence – something I am fiercely protective of – while serving as a community rabbi at the will of a synagogue’s board of directors. Therefore, I believed that I also needed to secure an independent source of income. And so I first went to work for an international commodities trading company, and later I founded the leadership consulting firm that I currently lead.
At about that time, an opportunity arose to join a company of commodity traders in Johannesburg, and this is what I did, as well as establishing a Torah study academy known as Beis Hamedrash Kesser Torah. This Torah academy along with Chabad and Kolel Yad Shaul became involved in the South African Baal Teshuva Movement – the movement for young people to return to their Jewish roots and Torah observance.
Yiddishkeit is Not Difficult
Thu, Nov 02, 2017
Although I received a religious education as a child, I pursued secular studies in university, and it was not until I got married that I became seriously interested in Judaism. After a time, my wife and I moved to Stamford Hill, which is the Chassidic neighborhood of London, even though we were not Chassidic then. In fact, both of us were involved in academia – she as a lecturer in psychology, and I as a Ph.D. candidate in Jewish history and Hebrew literature.
Then, in 1968, while at University College London, I became acquainted with Rabbi Shmuel Lew, the emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who had just been appointed student counselor. He found me a study partner for my Talmudic studies, and he introduced me to Chassidic teachings.
The first time I met the Rebbe was in 1973, when I came to spend a month in New York. I had written a long letter to the Rebbe in which I asked his advice regarding my future: Should I continue with my studies at University College and finish my doctorate? Or, should I transfer to Jews College (now London School of Jewish Studies) and get rabbinic ordination? Or, should I go into business?
When the Rebbe read my letter, he answered: “You should finish your doctorate.”
“But there is so much ‘apikorsut’ (heresy) that I have to read and write about,” I protested.
At that the Rebbe said, “You should write all the footnotes you need. And then” he added with a big smile, “you should do Teshuvah.”
The Rebbe also warned me not to get involved in comparative religion. He said that Jewish thought or Chassidic thought should not be compared with any other philosophy. And later I realized the wisdom of that.
The Down to Earth Blessing
Wed, Oct 25, 2017
I was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I attended the local Chabad day school and, therefore, I got a good grounding in Chassidic teachings as a child.
When I reached Bar Mitzvah age, one of my teachers, Rabbi Velvel Konikov, took me to see the Rebbe, and it was an experience I will never forget. I remember the Rebbe asking me if I received his letter of blessings for the occasion. I replied that I hadn’t. He immediately made a note to make sure that it should be sent out a second time, and then he gave me a most beautiful blessing.
When I returned to Worcester, I resolved to be a chasid of the Rebbe. This was in 1967, at the time of the Six Day War, just after the Rebbe had launched his tefillin campaign urging every Jew to put on tefillin in order to win added merit for the security of Israel.
It was not an easy thing to do – to go out in the street, walk up to total strangers and ask them to put on tefillin. But the Rebbe said to do it, so I did.
The day after I did it, Rabbi Hershel Fogelman, the dean of my school, called me in and asked, “Did you go out on the tefillin campaign yesterday?” I said that I did, and I told him where I had gone – a suburban neighborhood where I knocked on many doors.
“Do you know whose house you went to?!” he responded. “The Mayor of Worcester! And he was so excited that you gave him a chance to put on tefillin.”
The Rabbi and his Guide
Wed, Oct 18, 2017
I’ve heard that the Rebbe had many operatives outside of card-carrying Lubavitchers and his official emissaries. In fact, I now know that my father was one of them.
My father, Rabbi Charles Batt, grew up in the early 1900s in Connecticut, where he was educated at the New Haven Yeshivah. Subsequently, he received rabbinic ordination in Cleveland from Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, who later became the rosh yeshivah of the Ner Yisrael Yeshivah in Baltimore.
In 1933, my father married my mother and they settled in Hartford, CT, where he opened a paper and printing equipment business and where he also began to spread Judaism as a volunteer.
My father’s dedication led to the beginnings of a Jewish day school, called the Yeshiva of Hartford, of which he became president, and which I attended as a child. He also became the unofficial rabbi of the local synagogue – Young Israel of Hartford – and he learned one-on-one with people on Shabbat mornings or free weekday evenings. He also learned with groups of local teenagers on Shabbat afternoons. As a result, he had a tremendous influence on hundreds of young people who are Torah-observant today and whose children and grandchildren now lead Torah lifestyles.
Starting in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, he used to occasionally go to New York to meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He needed advice with what he was trying to accomplish in Hartford and, although I don’t think that my father became a chasid of the Rebbe in the strict sense, the Rebbe was the person that he’d turn to for guidance. I thought that was the extent of the relationship.
The World is my Teacher
Tue, Oct 10, 2017
I come from a Lubavitch family. In fact, my father was educated at the Lubavitch yeshivah in Russia. He subsequently immigrated to Israel, where he married my mother, and then they moved on to the United States. That is where I was raised and where I also attended a Lubavitch yeshivah.
Together with my brother Zalman, I enrolled in the Lubavitch yeshivah when it first opened in New York in 1941. This was right after the Previous Rebbe, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, was rescued from Nazi Europe and established his headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
During those early years, it was my privilege to get to know the Previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who later became the seventh Rebbe, although during the years I am talking about – 1941 to 1951 – he was known as Ramash.
While I was studying in the Chabad yeshivah, on Shabbat mevarchim, the last Shabbat before a new month, there was a kiddush. Typically, the kiddush blessing was made on wine, and there was also vodka and other drinks, as well as some cake. Ramash would sit at the head of the table, as the group would sing some songs and then he would speak for about forty minutes or so. Often, he would choose a subject that was relevant to the guests who were there, relating the lesson to our service of G-d.
One time, when a pants manufacturer named Mr. Denberg was visiting from Montreal, the Rebbe described the whole dry-cleaning process and how it served as a metaphor for our service of G-d. Unfortunately, I do not remember the details of that lesson.