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!
Resignation Not Accepted
Wed, Mar 08, 2017
I was born in Israel but my parents moved to Crown Heights when I was only four, and I had the good fortune of growing up in the Lubavitch fold, in close proximity to the Rebbe.
In 1983, my wife Rivka and I had been married for a year already and we were exploring options of becoming Chabad emissaries someplace in the world.
As a result, we set our sights on Columbia University and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. So we asked the Rebbe for his blessing and agreement. The Rebbe responded that this was a good idea, provided my wife agreed. Of course she did, and we went to work.
I started by setting up a hot dog stand at the gates of Columbia University, which was my outreach vehicle, and I also gave a class in Earl Hall on the Tanya, the seminal work by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement. Eventually we began expanding to other programs as well.
One year, when the holiday of Purim was approaching, I copied an idea from a fellow Chabad emissary by producing a Purim flyer which advertised a UPS (United Purim Service.) The flyer proclaimed “This is the whole Megilla” across the top, and which then went on to say that many Jews heard of Magilla Gorilla but most Jews never heard of the real “Megilla.” Magilla Gorilla was a popular kids’ cartoon in the 1960s, featuring a gorilla dressed in a bow tie, shorts held up by suspenders and an undersized derby hat.
It also said that, on Purim, Jews share in joy and revelry, and among many other things, it offered two kinds of Shalach Manot gift options — a $4.95 and $6.95, one was with grape juice, one was with wine — to be delivered by a clown on the campus during the Holiday of Purim.
I printed this flyer and, because I had a custom to submit everything to the Rebbe, I sent this also, never expecting any kind of response. But, within a few days, I was amazed to get a call from the Rebbe’s secretary that the Rebbe had edited my flyer. I went to Chabad Headquarters and saw that the Rebbe had made some significant changes.
First, the Rebbe crossed out “Magilla Gorilla.” I’m not sure why the Rebbe objected to it, but I suppose that he didn’t think it was necessary to mention pop-culture, especially in this context. Where the flyer said that “most Jews don’t know what a real Magilla is” the Rebbe crossed out “most” and substituted “not all.” He clearly didn’t want us making this kind of judgment about our fellow Jews. And where the flyer mentioned “joy and revelry,” the Rebbe crossed out “revelry.” Obviously, “revelry” has a negative connotation.
A Lantern in a Quagmire
Wed, Feb 22, 2017
I first met the Rebbe in 1962, as a result of my association with Rabbi Nachman Sudak.
I had recently become religious in 1958 and connected with Chabad in London, where Rabbi Sudak worked as the Rebbe’s emissary. I have a very inquiring and skeptical mind, and Rabbi Sudak knew how to speak to me. He never tried to pacify me with simplistic answers, and I really appreciated the time and care he took in answering my questions.
It was Rabbi Sudak who told me about the Rebbe. He said that the Rebbe was a very holy man who had a deep understanding of secular matters as well.
At first, I was not interested in meeting him. The rumors I heard that the Rebbe could work miracles made me suspicious – was he a charlatan or a trickster? But my curiosity got the better of me.
I remember walking into 770, the Chabad World Headquarters, and the Rebbe turning to look at me. It was as if he saw right through me, and I felt like such a fool for having had the thoughts I’d had about him. I almost wished that the earth would open up to swallow me whole.
But that didn’t happen. The Rebbe smiled at me, and I sensed an aura of spirituality around him but, even more than that, an aura of goodness.
When I went in for my personal audience with him, I had with me the piece of paper on which I had been instructed to write my questions. My first question concerned my Hebrew name, which is Betzalel; I was supposedly named after my grandfather whose name was Solomon, so I wanted to know if I was using the wrong name.
The Rebbe invited me to sit down, and even before I handed in my questions, he asked me, “What is your Hebrew name?”
“It is Betzalel, but I think that must be wrong,” I said, and I explained about my grandfather.
“If you were called up to the Torah with the name Betzalel and on your marriage contract it said Betzalel, then there is no question that your name is Betzalel,” he responded.
The Early Years – Paris
Wed, Feb 15, 2017
During the 1930s, the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn – who was then living in Poland and quite ill after his ordeals in Russia – would often visit a health clinic in Paris. And, on Shabbos, he would stay at the home of my parents, Reb Yankel and Baila Lax.
Our home was on Boulevard Saint Denis, very close to the synagogue of the diamond dealers and furriers, of which my father was one. After services, the Previous Rebbe would remain in the synagogue until the afternoon. When he would finally return, I would help him put away his prayer shawl, and I would see that it was wet with tears. He was really a holy man.
At the time I was about twenty years old, and I clearly recall the Previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who would later become the Rebbe, visiting him often in our home.
The Rebbe and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, were then living in a district in Paris where no Jews lived in those days. But the rents there were cheaper, much cheaper than in the center of Paris. This location suited him very well, as it was close to where he was studying mathematics and engineering, and it allowed him to make it home for Shabbat on Fridays.
Once I met him at the Sainte-Geneviève Library, where I went to translate something from Greek into French for school. This was the biggest library in Paris, located in the Latin Quarter, near all the universities. At this library they had handwritten editions of the Jerusalem Talmud, as well as the letters of Maimonides in his own handwriting. Indeed, theirs was one of the biggest collections of Judaica in Europe, which is undoubtedly why the Rebbe was there.
I sat down not far from him and began laboring over my translation, which was very hard. After a time I got fed up – what did I need this Greek for? I decided to tear out a page from the book and take it home, in order to continue at my leisure. As I started to do this, I saw the Rebbe motioning to me. He was wagging his finger in disapproval. So I stopped.
Some years later, just when my father finished the mourning period for his own father, my brother passed away. He had gone swimming with some friends and drowned. When the Previous Rebbe heard of this, he came to console my father who was naturally bereft, having lost his father and his son in such a short period of time.
Wed, Feb 08, 2017
From the time I reached marriageable age, I’d been seriously searching for the right match. Although I grew up in a strong Lubavitch family and was educated in religious schools – in a Bais Yaakov High School and Seminary – I had also pursued a university education, and I wasn’t sure that the right shidduch for me would be found in Chabad yeshivah circles. Of course, I wanted a husband who was a Torah scholar, but who also had a broad knowledge of the world.
My grandmother used to tease me, “What do you want – a rabbi, a doctor, and a lawyer rolled into one? He hasn’t been born yet!”
I went out on dates that initially looked promising, but I wasn’t sure if any of the suggested prospects were really right for me. These failures were filling me with anxiety, so at a personal audience with the Rebbe, I voiced my concerns. The Rebbe’s response reassured me: “Ihr zolt mir nit fargssen einladen tzu der chassunah – “You shouldn’t forget to invite me to the wedding.” I understood him to mean that it was going to happen soon.
One day my brother, who was studying at the Chabad yeshivah in 770 Eastern Parkway, came home and said, “There’s a new student – a young man from England who is very learned and who also has a good English education. Would you like to meet him?” I agreed, and my father went to speak with this young man’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Mendel Futerfas. However, Rabbi Futerfas informed him that the young man in question was not dating as yet since, for the time being, he was committed to Torah learning. In any case, there was already a queue of families interested in him. My father answered jokingly, “Well then, we will join the queue.”
About a year later, a friend of mine, Gitty Fisher, called me up. “If you are not dating anyone,” she said, “I would like to recommend a shidduch for you.” Then she mentioned the young man’s name – Binyomin Cohen. And I remembered that this was the same person my brother had talked about, so I agreed to meet him.
On the third date, my husband was ready to propose but I needed more time, not being quite as decisive as he was. While I was deliberating, my life went on as usual. One evening before Purim I went to a Torah lecture and returned quite late. I went up the stairs quietly so as not to awaken anyone, but was surprised to find my parents and brothers still up and sitting around the kitchen table.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
Facing Conflict With a Smile
Wed, Jan 25, 2017
I was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. My mother was a religious woman, the daughter of a Jerusalem rabbi, but my father didn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism. That all changed, thanks to the Rebbe, as I will explain.
Because of my mother’s insistence, I received a religious education. When it came time to enter the army, there was a surplus of female soldiers so I signed up for “national service” and was sent to Ein HaNatziv, a moderately religious kibbutz, and I ended up staying there even after my service ended. That is where I met my husband, got married and started a family.
All the while, we tried to be ultra-religious. As a result my children faced a lot of scorn and ridicule from their peers. When it became unbearable for us to continue, we decided that it was time to leave.
Previously, I had met two ladies who were emissaries of Chabad – Rochel Dunin and Rivka Sassonkin and through them I developed a close connection with Chabad. And I decided that I would first travel to New York to receive the Rebbe’s blessing before the big move. This was in 1976, a month after Rosh Hashanah.
On that occasion, my father – who had since changed his attitude toward Judaism – joined me for the trip to New York. I told him, “Go to the Rebbe when he distributes wine from his cup – what is called Kos Shel Bracha – and get a blessing. My father agreed, even though it meant standing in line for a very long time. Indeed, he stood in line for three-and-a-half hours. When he reached the Rebbe, he said, “Ziva asked for some wine for her and her family.”
The Rebbe asked, “Who is Ziva?”
Having stood in line for as long as he did, my father got flustered and didn’t know how to answer. Somehow my married name – Pash – just escaped his mind.
After several excruciating moments the Rebbe finally said, “Do you mean Ziva Pash?” Apparently, the Rebbe remembered my name from the nine letters I wrote him in the past. Then he handed my father a bottle of vodka – in order so say l’chaim – and he blessed him to have nice grandchildren.
The One Hour Mission
Wed, Jan 11, 2017
I grew up on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the 1950s. Though Crown Heights is mostly Chabad-Lubavitch, my family was not – we were just “plain Orthodox.” However, due to the proximity and fame of the Rebbe, we would go see him twice a year during his public appearances.
One of those times was Simchat Torah, when we would go to see the Rebbe and his chasidim dancing with the Torah into the wee hours of the morning. The other time was on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when he conducted the Tashlich ceremony at the pond in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Thousands of people would march with the Rebbe, singing their hearts out, and I recall this making a tremendous impression on me as a child.
Those were my childhood memories of the Rebbe. When I grew up, I moved away from Crown Heights. I went to university, became a psychologist and, after getting married, became a U.S. Air Force chaplain in Alaska.
In 1973, while on my way to take up my post for the first time, my wife and I drove across the country, stopping among other places in St. Paul, Minnesota. There we met two Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Moshe Feller and Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum, who upon hearing about my deployment insisted that I inform the Rebbe.
I obliged and wrote to the Rebbe about my upcoming mission. In my letter, I noted the problem of building in Alaska a mikveh – the ritual pool, without which a Jewish community cannot function. The U.S. Army had allotted the money, but I could not find anyone who knew how to build a mikveh, at least not anyone willing to come to Alaska.
When I finished writing the letter I handed it to them, and they asked me if there was anything they could do to help me. I confided my problem to them and to my shock, the younger emissary, Rabbi Grossbaum told me that he makes a living doing exactly this – designing mikvehs and overseeing their construction – and he would love to help me.
“Here I am looking all over America for someone to build me a mikveh,” I thought. “And, before they even put the stamp on the letter to the Rebbe, my problem is solved!”
Fighting for Israel
Wed, Jan 04, 2017
During the summer of 1980, while I was serving as the director-general of the Religious Affairs Ministry in Israel, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, who would later become a member of the Knesset, invited me to attend his son’s wedding in New York. Once there, I took the opportunity to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As it happened, Rabbi Avraham Friedman, the Sadigura Rebbe, was also at the wedding and he also planned to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, so I, together with Rabbi Shapira, joined his entourage.
Having heard so much about the Rebbe and now preparing to meet him face to face for the first time, I felt a strong sense of apprehension. When I and the others arrived at 770 Eastern Parkway, we went directly into the Rebbe’s study and the first thing that made an impression on me were his deep and penetrating eyes – they bore deep inside me in a way that I can’t describe.
The Rebbe rose from his chair to greet us and invited us to sit in a semi-circle around his desk. The conversation that followed was conducted in Yiddish with phrases of Hebrew being interjected from time to time. The Rebbe began by inquiring about the Sadigura Rebbe’s institutions and about his plans for the future. The Sadigura Rebbe responded that most of his schools were in Bnei Brak while his synagogue was in Tel Aviv, so he was planning to move to Bnei Brak in order to be closer to his institutions.
“But if you move to Bnei Brak, what will become of the Jews of Tel Aviv?” the Rebbe asked. “If all the Rebbes move away, they will be abandoned.”
Apparently this argument touched the Sadigura Rebbe because, subsequently, he did not leave Tel Aviv – not until he reached an old age, and even then, he made a point of returning from time to time to help the community there.
Next, the Rebbe brought up the painful subject of a plan to give away swaths of the Land of Israel as part of a peace treaty with the Arabs. Our meeting was taking place a year after Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt and was considering doing the same with the West Bank. The Rebbe mentioned some of the open miracles which took place so that the Jewish people could acquire this land and how, with G-d’s help, they were victorious during the Six Day War. The Rebbe then exclaimed, “But instead of receiving this gift from G-d happily, there is now talk of giving it away!”
The Miracle of Empathy
Wed, Dec 21, 2016
I am a son of Holocaust survivors. While my parents did not suffer in the concentration camps, they lost their entire families during the war. They met after liberation and made a home in Vienna, where I was born in 1951. But, because of the anti-Semitism in Austria, they ended up coming to America when I was four – initially settling in Cleveland and later in Monsey, New York.
In 1967, when I was 16 and she was only 42, my mother found out she had terminal breast cancer. I was a wild teenager at the time, and so she asked me to go to Israel for a year and learn in yeshivah with the hope that I would settle down. I would have done anything for my mother, and so I went, enrolling in Keren B’Yavne. Learning there was a very meaningful experience for me – I spent a lot of time studying Jewish ethics (mussar), especially the writings of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler. At that time, I was befriended by the dean of the yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Goldvitcht. Afterwards, whenever he came to the United States, he would look me up, and I would become his personal chauffeur.
One day in 1969 he called and asked if I could drive him to a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Of course I said, “It would be my pleasure. What time and where should I pick you up?” It turned out the meeting was at 2 a.m. – something I hadn’t bargained for – but since I promised, I drove him. When we got to Chabad Headquarters, he went in to see the Rebbe while I waited outside.
At this time, my mother was still very ill. One of her doctors was advising that she have radical surgery, while another doctor was advising a harsh course of radiation. Neither doctor saw much hope.
The whole family was devastated by this situation and neither my father nor my mother seemed able to make a decision as which type of treatment to pursue. So, taking the opportunity that Rabbi Goldvitcht’s meeting presented, I asked permission to speak with the Rebbe about this issue.
I cornered the Rebbe as he was saying good-bye to Rabbi Goldvitcht, half-expecting that he would put me off. It was 3:30 a.m. and I thought he’d say, “I’m tired now. Ask my secretary for an appointment.” But instead, he said, “Please, please come in.”
Wed, Dec 14, 2016
When my wife and I were first sent as the Rebbe’s emissaries to Charlotte, North Carolina, we established a preschool there. It became very popular and, within five years, the enrollment was so high we had outgrown our facilities.
At that time – this was the end of 1985 – the local Jewish community was building a huge campus called Shalom Park, and on this site stood an old building which we wanted to use as our school. However, we were told it was not available.
No matter what we did to get it, the answer was: “It won’t be possible.”
And so it came down to the wire. Preschool was due to start in two weeks, and we had no place for the children.
Finally, my wife, who was the principal of the school at the time, sat down and wrote to the Rebbe. This was in the days before faxes were in popular use, so she wrote a letter. She said that she has a group of students and no place in which to teach them. She said she was at a loss as how to deal with this situation – what to tell the parents, what will happen to the kids’ education – and she was asking the Rebbe for advice and for a blessing.
Her letter went out on a Thursday. On Monday, we got a call from my father, Rabbi Leibel Groner, who was then the Rebbe’s secretary. When my wife picked up the phone, he told her to take a pencil and write down the Rebbe’s answer to her letter. It was this: “G-d, will provide everything that is needed. And may you always report with good news”
We were both overjoyed, and we immediately called all the parents and told them “Mazel Tov, we have a place!” Naturally, they asked, “Where?” And we said, “We don’t know yet, but we know we have a place. If the Rebbe said that G-d will provide everything that is needed, there will be a place.”
I also called one of my biggest supporters – State Senator Marshall Rauch – and he recommended that I approach the local Jewish Foundation again about the building in Shalom Park. He said I should tell them that we have a place but that we are giving them a final chance at last refusal. And this is what I did – I called the lawyer who was in charge of the Jewish Foundation and told him exactly that.
He said to me, “You know what, Rabbi Groner? I thought it over and I think we can give you that building for the preschool. We have to go to five different boards and get their approval, but we can do it.”
Wed, Dec 07, 2016
I was born, raised and educated in England, earning a law degree from London University. But, early on, I became disillusioned with practicing law and, in 1959, I decided to pursue a career in Jewish education instead.
About this time, I was introduced to Chabad Lubavitch, when I was invited to participate in the organization of the first Lag B’Omer children’s parade in London. This type of parade – where Jewish children publicly proclaimed their allegiance to Torah – was very successfully staged by Chabad in New York, but Jews in London, who kept a very low profile, didn’t think it would be popular here.
Despite this skepticism, Chabad pressed on with parade plans and word went out that they were seeking counselors to look after the children who would be participating. To make a long story short, I signed up and the experience was most inspiring. Nearly one-thousand children marched, openly affirming their connection to Yiddishkeit, and it was something most amazing to see.
The following year, on the urging of my new Chabad friends, I came to New York to explore the possibility of studying at the Chabad yeshivah in Crown Heights. This is when I met the Rebbe for the first time, and I have no words to describe what that was like. Suffice to say, it was very, very special.
I had not known what to say to the Rebbe or what to request of the Rebbe, so I asked advice of the mashpia – the yeshiva’s spiritual mentor – and he said, “Ask the Rebbe how you can be joyful all the time, the way a chasid is supposed to be.” The mashpia sized me up correctly; I was not a joyful sort of fellow, and I needed advice in this regard.
When I asked this question of the Rebbe, he answered me as follows: “If you keep in mind that the soul of a Jew is a part of G-d above, how can you not be constantly joyful?” Then he added, “I see that you are by nature a melancholy type of fellow, but if you bear this fact in mind at all times, you will be joyful.”
After this audience, the Rebbe looked out for me. Whenever there was a farbrengen and the Rebbe was handing out wine from his cup – what is known as Kos Shel Bracha – he would say to me “Un vos iz mit simcha? – And what’s with the joy?”