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!
Writing the Book on Self-Sacrifice
Wed, Aug 05, 2020
As a young man, while studying at Chabad’s Yeshivas Toras Emes in Jerusalem, I became curious about the Rebbe’s background. Of course, I knew that the Rebbe shared his surname with the Previous Rebbe – who was his father-in-law – and that he was the descendant of the famed Tzemach Tzedek, but I knew nothing beyond that.
My fellow students also knew nothing more, and when I asked the elders in the yeshivah, I received no further details. The lack of information troubled me very much – it just didn’t feel right. “He is our Rebbe,” I thought, “so why don’t we know more about his roots?”
This matter continued to trouble me into adulthood, and I decided to do something about it. So I sent a letter to the Rebbe, telling him that I would like to write a book about his father – Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson – but I never received a response.
Nine years passed.
In 1974, during the month of the High Holidays and Sukkot, I traveled for the first time to New York to see the Rebbe. After the conclusion of Simchat Torah, when everyone approached him to receive wine from his cup – a ceremony known as Kos Shel Brachah – I went up as well. As the Rebbe poured the wine for me, he said, “You promised me a book about my father. Where is it?”
I was momentarily shocked that he should remember something from so long ago, but then I responded, “I sent the Rebbe a letter, but never received a reply.”
The Rebbe smiled and said in a voice loud enough for the people standing nearby to hear: “I don’t need to answer you. G-d needs to answer you.”
100 Light Years
Fri, Jul 31, 2020
For the past forty-five years, I have directed Chabad’s Shabbat Candle Campaign, which the Rebbe started in 1974.
It was very important to the Rebbe that all Jewish women – including young girls – be lighting Shabbat candles to illuminate this dark world we live in. And he devoted a great deal of time and energy so that all aspects of the campaign had maximum impact.
Just how important this was to him was made crystal clear to me when the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, passed away. This happened in 1988 – on Wednesday, February 10th – more than a dozen years into the campaign.
That year, our main fund-raising event – a Melave Malka dinner – was to take place on Saturday night, February 13th, when the Rebbe was sitting shivah in mourning for his wife. Of course, we had planned it months in advance, not knowing that any of this would happen. At first, we thought to cancel, but then we decided to go ahead and dedicate it to her memory. So we issued an announcement that we were establishing a special fund in the Rebbetzin’s merit to further promote the campaign.
Exploring Asia in Brooklyn
Wed, Jul 22, 2020
I was born in Shanghai, China, where my grandfather – Judah Abraham – served as one of the leaders of the Sephardic community. In 1948, when I was twenty-one, I moved to Hong Kong where I stayed until 1963 or so, and then I immigrated to London. That is where I got married and lived until moving to Miami nearly forty years ago.
Back in 1962, while still living in the Far East, I attended a Bar Mitzvah of a relative in New York, where I met a number of young chasidic rabbis, one of whom – I later surmised – must have reported to his Rebbe that a Jew from Hong Kong was in town. At that time, I was staying in Brooklyn with my friend Benny Fishoff, who had lived in Shanghai during the war years, and a message came to his house that the Lubavitcher Rebbe would like to meet with me. I had no idea who this was – and I remember putting my hands over the telephone speaker and whispering to Benny, “Who is the Lubavitcher Rebbe?”
It was a surprising meeting. I recall that, when I walked into the Rebbe’s office, what immediately struck me was the simplicity of the room, which was dominated by a desk with a gentleman sitting behind it. As I entered, he rose to greet me and shook my hand.
He asked me questions about myself and he also spoke of his own background, and from that point, we began discussing our shared Jewish heritage and how that is observed by the different communities throughout the world.
While we were talking – he spoke an excellent English, by the way – I looked at my watch several times, not wanting to overstay my welcome. After hours passed – when it was eleven, and then when it was eleven-thirty, and then twelve – I got worried. But the Rebbe said, “Don’t worry about the time – we still have much to talk about.”
Three Steps in the Right Directions
Wed, Jul 15, 2020
When I first came to New York from Montreal – in order to study at the Torah Vodaas yeshivah in Brooklyn – I became enamored with the chasidic atmosphere of the neighborhood and began visiting the courts of the various Rebbes. I was a curious kid, just past my Bar Mitzvah, and these visits didn’t really have an effect on me until I encountered the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
I could tell with my teenage eyes that this Rebbe was different. I couldn’t really pinpoint what it was, but I knew that he was extraordinary.
When I would see him out on the street, he didn’t walk with a silver stick or an entourage around him; he walked alone with his hands in his coat pockets as if he was a simple Jew. I didn’t know much at that age, I was just a youngster, but this I noticed. And after I heard him speak at the farbrengens – for hours and hours – I understood that this man is holy; this man is a real tzaddik.
As a result, I was drawn to Lubavitch and, in 1959, I transferred to a Chabad yeshivah.
But even while I was still a student at Torah Vodaas, I joined a small group of students in a nearby synagogue for a class on chasidic teachings. The chasid who would teach us, also encouraged us students to take on a daily recitation of Chitas, which is an acronym for Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), Tehillim (Psalms) and Tanya (the seminal work of the Alter Rebbe, the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement). It is a Chabad custom to study passages of Chitas every day.
Fri, Jul 10, 2020
When I served in the Israel Defense Forces, I was only one of twelve Torah observant recruits in the Givati Brigade which, back then, numbered some three-thousand soldiers.
We had kosher food – because, by Israeli law, all food in national institutions has to be kosher – but we had nothing else. We had no synagogue in which to pray (like they have today on every base), nor a Torah scroll to read from. But we tried to make the best of it.
One Friday, as Shabbat was approaching, I went to the other observant boys and said to them, “Come to my tent this evening and we’ll pray together. Let’s have our own Shabbat meal; we can sing and celebrate, and it will feel like a real Shabbat.”
They thought it was a fine idea and so that is what we did. We got the food from the dining room and brought it back to my tent, where we made Shabbat – just the twelve of us. We prayed, we sang, we ate, and it was beautiful. And nobody bothered us.
But then a new commander was put in charge of our base – the famed Brigadier General Abrashah Tamir. He went around inspecting everything and, one Friday evening, he came to my tent and found us sitting there and singing.
The Heart of a Mother
Wed, Jul 01, 2020
When I was three years old, my parents were told by doctors in Israel – where I was born and raised – that a valve in my heart was damaged and would eventually need to be replaced. However, I was able to lead a normal life, get married at age twenty, and give birth to two daughters.
It was not until my husband, Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz, and I moved to Chicago in 1983 – where we both accepted teaching offers – that my lingering health problems escalated.
I started feeling extremely fatigued, and I ended up in the hospital for tests. That is when Dr. Ira Weiss, the Rebbe’s cardiologist who lived in Chicago, became my cardiologist as well.
After seeing the results of my echocardiogram, he told me, “Leah, my advice to you is to have your heart valve replaced immediately.”
Having a major surgery at the age of twenty-three was frightening. I also knew – having been told this before – that it would mean the end of my childbearing, and I could not fathom such a thing since I looked forward to raising a large family. I told Dr. Weiss, “Without the Rebbe’s blessing I will not agree to the surgery. You have the best connection, so please ask him for me. Whatever the Rebbe says, I will do.”
Shortly afterwards, Dr. Weiss got back to me: “The Rebbe said not to operate, but to treat you with medication.”
There was a risk of my damaged heart valve causing a stroke, so Dr. Weiss prescribed Coumadin, a blood thinner, to prevent this. But I was absolutely forbidden to become pregnant while taking this particular medication as it was known to damage the fetus. Furthermore, as a side effect, it caused me bleeding ulcers, and I was hospitalized several times.
Dr. Weiss often told me how the Rebbe took a personal interest in my health condition, asking him “How is your favorite patient?” and discussing with him my heart rate and other aspects of my condition.
After a year had passed, Dr. Weiss determined that I could discontinue the blood thinner. With G-d’s help, I started to feel much better and said I wanted more children, but Dr. Weiss felt that it would be dangerous for me to become pregnant. However, he promised to consult the Rebbe on this issue the next time he visited him.
Wed, Jul 01, 2020
Although I always intended to become a rabbi one day, when I went to college, I decided to major in physics instead of theology or philosophy.
I made that decision because a professor at Brandeis University where I was enrolled – the famed Alexander Altmann – had asked me what questions I wanted to answer through my studies. I said, “I want to understand the universe.” And he responded, “Well, then you want to study physics.” I protested, “No, I want to study mysticism.” His rejoinder was, “Oh, I thought you were serious.”
I did want to be serious, and so I took up the study of physics. I thought I would become a better rabbi because of it – I would have a serious background.
In 1973, when I was twenty-one and about to graduate, I experienced a crisis in faith. As a result, I also lost my ability to concentrate during prayers, which had always been my mainstay. Concentration in prayers was very important to me then and remains very important to me today, but at this particular time I was leaving the familiar environment of the university and I was fearful about the future, which affected my faith.
So I went to my spiritual mentor, Reb Zalman Schacter, and confided my problem. His response was: “You should come to New York with me and meet the Rebbe.”
I took his advice and joined him for prayers at Chabad Headquarters the following week. I didn’t get to see the Rebbe in a private audience, I just got to meet him in the hallway as he was leaving his office. But that encounter was most memorable. In fact, it changed me forever.
As we were standing there, the Rebbe came directly over to me. I was startled by his piercing blue eyes and the intensity of his personality. Without any preamble, he asked me, “Do you think that protons decay?”
He didn’t inquire who I was, nor where or what I studied. Reb Zalman later said he never told him anything about me. Yet, there he was asking me questions about physics.
He continued: “Why do neutrinos spin in a counterclockwise direction?”
Do Not Push
Thu, Jun 18, 2020
When I first became Torah observant, my husband gave me a hard time about it. He did not understand why I was suddenly doing some of the things I was doing – to him it seemed I was becoming a different person than the one he had married – and he did not like it.
So I wrote a very self-righteous letter to the Rebbe, complaining, “I’ve decided to keep Torah and my husband won’t cooperate. But isn’t it true that I must do it despite what he says?”
I fully expected the Rebbe to respond, “Yes, you have to do what the Torah commands, no matter what your husband wants.” But the Rebbe did not say that. Instead, he gave me a two-part answer that basically said: “Don’t fight with your husband about religion, and find someone to influence him, someone whom he will respect.”
It was such wise advice, and fully in keeping with the Rebbe’s approach of finding a positive solution to every problem. And I wish I had immediately done what he said, but it took me a while to accept that harmony in the home – what Judaism calls Shalom Bayit – had to take precedence.
Generally, what happens when a wife fights with her husband about religion? Whether or not he gives in, he is not going to like her and he is not going to like religion, which he will see as a divisive force in their marriage. Furthermore, their children will be adversely affected when they see their parents fighting and they too will identify religion as the cause of the tension in the home.
As for the second part of the Rebbe’s advice, I had to accept that I wasn’t supposed to be my husband’s rabbi – I was his wife. He was Sephardi so the way to reach him was through a Sephardi rabbi, one who understood his background and knew how to speak to him about religious matters.
The moment I found such a person and took a step back, things started to improve.
There were further issues to be sure – some quite painful. In fact, there was a point in time that I considered divorce. At one stressful juncture, I wrote to the Rebbe that I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted a husband who would accompany me on my journey to become fully Torah observant, not one who was fighting me every step of the way. If we divorced, I reasoned, all this strife would go away, and we could both lead happier lives apart from each other.
A Ground-Breaking Concert
Wed, Jun 10, 2020
I was born and raised in Tel Aviv, where I attended the Bilu School – the religious school famous for its boys’ choir conducted by the world-renowned cantor, Shlomo Ravitz.
Subsequently, I studied at the Israel Academy of Music and then served as a cantor in the IDF, in Johannesburg and in London, before moving with my family to New York in 1973 to take up the post of cantor at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue where I have been ever since.
After we had been living in New York for about three months, one of the members of the synagogue invited me to join him at a farbrengen where he introduced me to the Rebbe, and from there our relationship developed.
Many times, the Rebbe gave me blessings for success in my profession, urging me to travel and hold many concerts, including concerts to raise money for charity.
On one occasion he said, “You should honor G-d with your voice,” going on to the explain: “According to our Sages, the verse [from Proverbs], ‘Honor God with your property,’ can be read to mean, ‘Honor God with your voice,’ which applies to a cantor.”
Then he quipped, “If I would try, I don’t know if I’d succeed – the audience might run away. But when you sing, more people come and they increase their donations as well.”
Another time – after I had given a series of concerts in the Soviet Union – the Rebbe was especially effusive with his praise.
I had gone to the Soviet Union in May of 1989 – three years after the start of the reforms known as glasnost and perestroika – at the invitation of Ralph Goldman of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Soviets would not allow rabbis to visit, so he had the idea of bringing in Jewish singers, and to this they did not object.
So we staged a series of concerts to bring some Yiddishkeit to the people there, and when I returned, I got word that the Rebbe was so pleased with what we had done that he wanted to see me. He was particularly interested to hear how I managed to have the microphone removed from the Choral Synagogue in Moscow.
The Very, Very Good Idea
Thu, Jun 04, 2020
Both of my parents came from Lodz, Poland, where they got married and raised two children. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they were herded into the Lodz Ghetto which was liquidated in August of 1944, with the residents sent to concentration camps. Both my parents managed to survive and be reunited after the war, but their two children – a brother and sister whom I never met – did not survive.
My mother became very quickly pregnant again and gave birth to my older sister in 1946 in a DP camp. Unfortunately, my mother was not in the best shape at the time and my sister received poor prenatal care, so she ended up being sickly her whole life. I was born two years later and, when I was a baby, we immigrated to the United States, settling in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn where some Lubavitchers lived at the time.
Although my parents were not Lubavitch, they came from a chasidic background and, when I reached school age, they sent me to the chasidic school nearest our house which happened to be a Lubavitch school.
The Rebbe had taken over the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch two years earlier, in 1951, and the stories about him were already spreading. My mother, who had very strong belief in the power of tzaddikim, naturally gravitated to the Rebbe.
Her reliance on the Rebbe, his blessings and guidance grew even stronger when my father – who had been physically and mentally broken by his experiences during the war – passed away when I was twelve, just two months before my Bar Mitzvah.
All along, the Rebbe treated my mother with incredible patience and empathy. I recall her telling him about her experiences in the Holocaust – which took a long time – as the Rebbe listened with great attention. He was also very patient whenever she broke down in tears, as she spoke about how sickly my sister was, one of the main topics of every audience we had.
As for me, I saw the Rebbe every year around the time of my birthday. Usually, he would ask me what I was learning and then quiz me on that subject. I still remember a few of his questions because he stumped me a couple of times.
Once he asked me about the teaching of the Mishnah concerning a watchman who locks up an animal in its pen and then goes to sleep. “Is he liable if the animal is stolen during the night?”