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!
Wed, Feb 14, 2018
I was born in 1950 in Brownsville, which adjoins Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Making ends meet was difficult for my Holocaust survivor parents so from an early age, I started taking on after-school jobs to earn money for items I wanted, like a toy or candy, a bicycle or a suit.
One of my jobs was delivering groceries. I’d take a baby carriage, load it up with an order, and
bring it to the customer’s house. The grocer, Mr. Stillerman, would pay me a quarter, and I also got tips from the customers themselves – ten or twenty cents. Usually, at the end of the week, I’d have five dollars, which was a lot of money in the early 1960s when you could buy a suit for twenty dollars.
One of Mr. Stillerman’s regular customers was Rebbetzin Chana who lived on President Street; she was the Rebbe’s mother.
On one occasion, when I went there, the Rebbe himself opened the door. He looked at me and asked, “What do you have there?” I replied, “I have groceries… from the grocery store.” While I was bringing in the boxes – there were quite a few – I saw that the Rebbe took off his long jacket, his kapote, and began unpacking everything. He had a list of the things his mother had ordered, and after making sure it was all there, he began putting it all away.
When he finished, he gave me a ten-dollar tip. I tell you I was in shock walking out of there. Nobody had ever given me such a large tip before!
When I went back outside, several chasidim were standing there, and they asked me, “Did you get a tip from the Rebbe?” I told them I did. When I showed it to them, one chasid offered, “How about we take this ten, and we give you a twenty for it.”
It was the deal of the century as far as I was concerned. It usually took me a month to earn twenty dollars! I ran home very excited to tell my mother all about it. Immediately we set off for Flamm’s, the clothing store, to buy the suit that I had been eyeing for a long time.
When my father returned from work and saw the suit, he wanted to know who had won the lottery. So I told him about the Rebbe’s tip and what happened afterwards with the chasidim. Needless to say, although not being a Lubavitcher chasid himself, he was not very happy about it.
Two weeks later, my father took me to the Rebbe’s farbrengen. At the end of the holidays, the Rebbe would pour out wine from his cup – it was called kos shel brachah – and we got in line for it. When we reached the front, my father asked the Rebbe, “Do you recognize my son, Avraham Yitzchak?” The Rebbe smiled and responded
The Stock Tip
Thu, Feb 08, 2018
My father, Shlomo Perrin, was a London furrier who came from a family which was close to Lubavitch for generations. One time, while visiting the United States, he came to meet the Rebbe and became his loyal follower, as later did I. The stories I would like to relate here concern the wise advice that the Rebbe gave my father and me over the years in our various business ventures.
In 1956, my father got word that the Shell Oil Company was going to take over another oil company, Canadian Devonian, and when that happened, the shares of the Canadian company would go through the roof.
My father thought this was a sure way of making a fortune and decided to use the proceeds to fund a new Chabad girls’ school. He was so excited about the idea that he was even ready to mortgage his house to buy the Canadian shares. But, before doing anything, he wrote a letter to the Rebbe, asking how much money to invest. The Rebbe replied that he didn’t trust the stock market and recommended that my father have nothing to do with it. The Rebbe explained that a businessman has no control over the fluctuations of stocks and such an investment is very dangerous. But then the Rebbe added, “If you want to learn a lesson, buy just a thousand pounds worth.”
My father decided that he wanted to know what the Rebbe meant by “if you want to learn a lesson” so he bought a thousand pounds worth. And then he followed the Financial Times to see what would happen to his shares.
As it turned out, because of the Suez Crisis of 1956, Shell never bought the Canadian company whose shares started going downhill. In a short time, my father’s thousand-pound investment was worth only two-hundred-and-fifty pounds.
So then, my father asked the Rebbe what to do. The Rebbe said, “Wait until it goes back up to five hundred and sell.” My father did just that. He sold at five hundred – meaning he only lost half of his investment – and after that the bottom fell out of the whole thing.
Another time, a good friend from Cuba came to my father with a very promising business proposition. My father had our accountants look the deal over and they pronounced it excellent, but he would not proceed until the Rebbe gave his blessing. But when he wrote to the Rebbe, the answer came back, “Under no conditions should you have anything to do with this.”
The Jewish Job Description
Thu, Feb 01, 2018
As a college student enrolled at the University of London, I majored in social anthropology. My studies played a major part in sparking my interest to travel to some remote parts of the world – Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and Bali – and become acquainted with their cultures and religions. Slowly I came around to thinking that there must be some kind of universal truth that I should be seeking, and Judaism should not be ruled out. This was repeatedly brought home to me when the natives in those distant places asked me about my religion and I wouldn’t know how to answer.
In 1971, after returning from Indonesia, I confided my dilemma to a good friend of mine from Manchester who suggested that if I wanted to explore Judaism, then Chabad-Lubavitch would be a good place to start. “They are more cheerful than the rest,” he quipped.
I followed his advice and ended up enrolling in a Chabad yeshivah in Kfar Chabad, Israel. There I found many spiritual seekers like me, all interested in learning about the Jewish mystical tradition.
After a year of very enriching and inspiring studies, I still had a few concerns. One was that, being an independent person, I was worried that becoming a Chabad chasid meant abandoning my individuality. It seemed as if Chabad-Lubavitch people were very dependent on the Rebbe, and I was not sure that I could easily submit to the Rebbe’s directives.
The only way to resolve my doubts was to go and meet the Rebbe, which I did at Passover time in 1974. The procedure in those days was – in advance of the audience, to write a letter to the Rebbe outlining one’s concerns and requests, and hand it in to the Rebbe’s office. So this I did – I wrote a letter five or six pages long, explaining my background and listing my questions.
I recall walking into the Rebbe’s office – which seemed huge to me at the time – and seeing the Rebbe seated at his desk. Although I walked in feeling quite nervous, I immediately relaxed because the Rebbe had a warm fatherly air about him, and yet, at the same time, I felt that I was in the presence of somebody very great.
He immediately took out my long letter and began answering my questions.
One of these was how much sleep I should get per night. It might seem like a trivial question but it was important to me because I wanted precise advice how to allocate my time.
Building the Holy Land
Wed, Jan 24, 2018
In 1987 – about three years after I had been elected mayor of Ariel, Israel – I visited New York, and I had the privilege of meeting the Rebbe for the first time.
I vividly recall that it was Sunday when the Rebbe was giving away dollars for charity and thousands of people were standing in line. Yet, when I reached the Rebbe, he stopped to talk to me for a few minutes. He was very friendly and, when he smiled, there was a light on his face and his amazing blue eyes were shining.
Some ten months before this I had sent him a letter in which I raised various issues that concerned me in Israel. But when I stood before the Rebbe, I had forgotten all about it. His secretary, Rabbi Leibel Groner, introduced me as the mayor of Ariel, the capital of Samaria, and immediately the Rebbe said, “Yes, I read what you wrote.”
I had forgotten my own letter but he remembered it – a letter from ten months before – among thousands of letters he received since then!
I was so embarrassed that the blood just drained from my face. But he acted as if nothing had happened; he just proceeded to address the issues that I had raised in that letter, while I stood there like a child in front of a genius.
Then he asked me how things were coming along in Ariel, and I said that there was a lot of American pressure to give up control over the territories to the Arabs. To this the Rebbe said, “Be strong. Don’t give up even a piece of land. You need to keep the Land of Israel for the people of Israel. That is your role. You have to be strong and you have to build more.”
I took that opportunity to present him with an aerial photo of Ariel, and I showed him where we would like to build. He said, “You have to remember, that Ariel is also another name for the Temple, and with that name you have a special responsibility.”
During that meeting I also said to him that I had brought regards of three thousand children of Ariel, but instead of thanking me, he said, “I’m not satisfied.”
I was taken aback. All I could do is ask, “What do you mean?”
He said, “It should be six thousand children.” And again he said, “You have to build more.”
Up to that point, we had been speaking Hebrew, but suddenly he asked me, “Do you speak Yiddish?” When I answered that I understand a little Yiddish, he told me that our activities should be “Arayngechapt!”
I didn’t know what he meant so Rabbi Groner chimed in to explain that arayngechapt means “catch it all.”
The Black Belt with the Black Hat
Wed, Jan 17, 2018
I was born Philip Jacobs, although I was better known as “Flip Jacobs” in the predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up. But in 1967 – when I was 11 – we moved to South Royalton, Vermont, a hamlet with a population of only 900, where we were the only Jews in town. There was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism brewing there, and I got a bitter taste of it when I started school.
The school administration could not prevent the beatings I was routinely subjected to on and off school property, and it became painfully clear that I had to learn to defend myself. So my parents signed me up for karate classes with a South Korean master. From the beginning, I trained intensely – five hours a day, every day of the week. I got my black belt at age 18, and won many regional tournaments including the 1976 YMCA East Coast Black Belt Heavy Weight title. I spent my high school and college years training and competing in karate with the plan to eventually fight in the Olympics.
While I was attending the University of Vermont, I met Rabbi Shmuel Hecht, the Chabad emissary there, who immediately invited me to his house for Shabbos dinner and repeated that invitation every week. He called me Fishel, which nobody called me before. He would say, “Fishel, the Rebbetzin made great food for you, she made chicken wings for you…” How could I refuse? After a while, he also invited me to the synagogue on Saturday morning. So I started going there as well.
I graduated college in 1979 when, with Rabbi Hecht’s encouragement, I enrolled in the Hadar HaTorah yeshivah in Crown Heights. Of course, being so close to Chabad Headquarters, I saw the Rebbe every day when he came to pray Minchah. And I made of point of standing near him. I recall the Rebbe looking at me – straight into my eyes – and I believe that he must have been reading my soul.
A 2017 ‘My Encounter’ Story
Tue, Jan 16, 2018
By Rabbi Avraham Bekhor
Approximately ten years ago I met Mr. Bernard Cytryn, a Holocaust Survivor and a Korean War veteran. Reb Baruch, as he is known to my family, lives in my town and was a neuromuscular massage therapist. Reb Baruch’s energy and happiness drew me to him like a magnet and he became like a Zaide to us.
The first time we met I was having one of my low Shlichus days, not feeling successful and being hard on myself when in walks BARUCH! He was excited to show me a treasured letter from the Rebbe dated the 5th of Tammuz 5711 (1951). Of course, the Rebbe’s words hit me hard. It read: “It was a little surprising to me that you do not mention anything about your personal contact with your friends in matters of Yiddishkeit, for while influence by good example is effective often enough, it is necessary to make it the subject of conversation whenever possible.”
Reb Baruch hand delivered a message from the Rebbe to redirect me and help me focus on what’s important.
Reb Baruch went on to share his story with me. He narrowly escaped the line marching towards the crematorium in Aushwitz as a 13 year old boy. Sadly, he was the only survivor of his entire family – or so he thought. As he would say, “my family was destroyed.” And for Bernard Cytryn family means everything.
Even though he had an opportunity to escape Nazi Germany in the beginning of the war, his dear Mama couldn’t part with him, so he stayed. With G-d’s help he made it over to America after the war and despite all his atrocious memories of the past he signed up to fight in the Korean War. He was grateful to the United States for saving his life during the Holocaust and he wanted to give back.
A friend of his, Rabbi Eliyahu Gross took him to yechidus with the Rebbe before he left for Korea. The Rebbe told him to put on Tefilin everyday while he is overseas and gave him a bracha to return home safely. He remembers how: “the bullets were whizzing by the right side of my face and the left side of my face, but they didn’t touch me because of the Rebbe’s blessing.”
After hearing this encounter with the Rebbe, I quickly connected Reb Baruch with Rabbi Yechiel Cagen of JEM’s My Encounter project, who interviewed him in 2010. In fact, Bernard’s story was one of those selected in JEM’s new book, My Story.
Take Care of Yourself
Wed, Jan 10, 2018
My parents were Gerer chasidim from Poland who immigrated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That is where my father, Rabbi Chanoch Henech Rosenfeld, befriended a neighbor of ours, Rabbi Mordechai Groner, who was a Lubavitcher. And this eventually led to our entire family becoming Lubavitcher chasidim.
There came a time in the late 1940s when I was working for the Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, which was headed by Rabbi J.J. Hecht, a prominent Chabad rabbi. And he decided that I would make a good wife for his brother Peretz.
We got married in 1949, and shortly before the wedding we came to get a blessing from the Rebbe – this was the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who was wheelchair bound due to the injuries he suffered in a Soviet prison. I remember that he said to me in Yiddish, “A bride can ask for all good things under the wedding canopy, so G-d should give you the wisdom to know what to ask for, and whatever you ask for should be fulfilled.” I remember that, because of his condition, he could barely speak. He had to struggle to express himself and that just broke my heart, so I stood there crying and crying and crying.
That was my encounter with the Previous Rebbe, who passed away a year later, and in 1951, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, his son-in-law, took over the leadership of Chabad as the Rebbe.
After being married for four years, we still had no children, and I came to ask for the Rebbe’s blessing. He said to me, “Did my father-in-law know about this situation?” I said that he did. “Then do what he advised.”
The Previous Rebbe had recommended that I go into a hospital and undergo various tests to find out why I couldn’t conceive. I never did that, but now I did. And I became pregnant – news which my husband joyfully reported to the Rebbe.
Good News, Guaranteed
Wed, Jan 03, 2018
In 1987, we moved from South Africa to the United States, where we had the good fortune to meet the Chabad emissary in Tarzana, California – Rabbi Mordy Einbinder – and join his synagogue.
After we had been living there for about a year, we noticed that Ryan, our two-and-a-half-year-old son was acting oddly, constantly bruising himself, and then we saw blisters on his tongue. Something was seriously wrong, so we took him to a see a pediatrician who immediately ordered blood tests and x-rays. Within hours, the diagnosis was in. Ryan had leukemia, and he was rushed to Children’s Hospital.
As soon as we had the chance, we informed Rabbi Mordy of what was going on, and he helped us draft a letter to the Rebbe, requesting a blessing for speedy recovery.
Very quickly thereafter, a letter came from the Rebbe saying he would pray for Ryan at the resting place of the Previous Rebbe, and that we should inform him of Ryan’s recovery. His exact words were: “You will report good news,” as if it was a given that we would have good news to report.
At that point, Ryan was the sickest child on the hospital floor – among all the children there with cancer, he was in the worst shape and he was not eating anything. But, after the Rebbe gave his blessing, Ryan sat up and drank a whole bottle.
After the doctors commenced treatment, Ryan was isolated in a kind of a plastic room designed to filter out all germs, as he was highly susceptible to infection. We had to don special spacesuits, gloves and masks to even come near him.
Meanwhile, with Rabbi Mordy’s help, we started sending weekly progress reports to the Rebbe, and thank G-d, we were able to say that Ryan was beginning to recover. Indeed, the leukemia went into remission very fast, though he was still extremely ill.
The Pharmacist’s Son
Wed, Dec 27, 2017
I grew up in Crown Heights where my father, Morris Milstein, operated a well-known drugstore – Milstein’s Pharmacy – at the corner of Troy and Lefferts.
Although my father attended the morning prayers every day, he was not a religious man – that is, he did not wear a yarmulke, and his pharmacy was opened seven days a week.
Back then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, pharmacies were not what they are today. The medicines did not come packaged in bottles ready to be taken – they had to be prepared with a mortar and pestle, and I remember my father physically grinding chemicals to make tablets and capsules.
My father basically functioned as a doctor with people coming to him for medical advice, and he practically lived in that drugstore, where my mother also worked.
Even though we were not Lubavitchers, over time, my father developed a strong friendship with the Rebbe, and my mother with the Rebbe’s wife.
So Far, Yet So Close
Thu, Dec 21, 2017
I met the Rebbe for the first time in 1969, when I was fourteen years old. Back then, I was living and learning in London, in a small Lubavitch school, but I wanted to learn in a real yeshivah, and so I asked the Rebbe if I could do that. The Rebbe approved and I went to the Lubavitch yeshivah in Brunoy, near Paris. Eventually, I transferred to the main Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivah in Crown Heights, New York, where I lived and learned for close to ten years.
In 1980, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, who was the Chabad emissary in Australia, approached me about joining other young married men in staffing his kollel post-graduate learning group in Melbourne.
I wasn’t very keen on the idea but, since he had come to me, I felt that it was worth considering. I had also received two other proposals so I decided to write to the Rebbe and request his advice. In my letter, I listed all three of my options with the invitation to Australia last, and I asked the Rebbe which option I should choose.
Two weeks passed, but I received no reply. Meanwhile, Rabbi Groner was anxious to know whether I was coming or not. “What do you want from me?” I responded, “I wrote to the Rebbe but I got no reply!”
Rabbi Groner apparently followed up with the Rebbe, who replied that the interested parties should ask again. I wrote again and, on that same day, we received the Rebbe’s answer. He had crossed out the other two potential destinations I had put forth, and underlined “Australia” as the place where I should go.