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 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?”
Healing the Hospitals
Wed, May 27, 2020
My work as a bacteriologist started years ago when there was an outbreak of a penicillin-resistant staphylococci which caused an epidemic of staph infections.
At that point, I was doing a lot of research; I was looking for microbes on the walls of hospitals, in the air-ducts of laundry rooms and operating rooms. I was very successful in my work – developing a reputation nationally, and then internationally, in the field of infection control, disinfection, sterilization and quarantine.
Subsequently, in 1969, I met with epidemiologists in London, who asked me to take a leave of absence from the University of Minnesota – where I was teaching and from where I had received a Ph.D. in medicinal bacteriology – in order to spend a few months with them learning how disease spreads in hospitals and how their techniques could prevent this.
People go to hospitals to get cured. Indeed, that is the whole function of hospitals – to cure people. Unfortunately, too many times people go to hospitals and become infected. It’s a very insidious thing, but why does it happen? Because sick people with every type of disease come to hospitals – some ill from infectious diseases, some from other types of ailments. So you have all these people together in one environment. To design an isolation system between them is not easy to do.
The epidemiologists in London were researching the spread of infections within their hospital wards, and when they invited me to come to learn their techniques, I asked the blessing for success from the Rebbe, with whom I had developed a relationship over the years.
I was very proud that I had been invited by these people at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital who were then on the forefront of studying the epidemiology of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – one of whom has since been knighted by the Queen of England – and when I mentioned all this to the Rebbe, he asked if I could send him a copy of the protocol of the research that I intended to do.
Of course I did so because, to be honest, I wanted the Rebbe to be impressed by it.
The Rebbe looked over my protocol and said, “Very, very good. Of course, I don’t understand most of it, but you’re the expert in the field, so I wish you great success. But, if you ask me, it might be a little more fruitful to investigate a different field.”
A Different Kind of Pediatrics
Thu, May 21, 2020
When I offered to make a substantial donation to Chabad, I received an amazing response from the Rebbe, which gave me great insight into his worldview and, literally, changed my life.
All this started when, in the early 1980s, my law partner and I got involved in real estate investment in the city of Melbourne, Australia, where we live. We bought two small properties in the center of town and, after holding onto them for quite a few years, we were approached by a big Japanese company which wanted to buy them. This Japanese company was planning to build a huge store in that location and they made us an offer we could not refuse. So we made the deal and realized a substantial sum.
I discussed it with my wife, Sylvia, and we both thought it would be a good idea to do something for Chabad with this money. After due consideration, we finally decided that we would like to build a hospital for children in Crown Heights, where the Chabad headquarters is located and where a significant Chabad community lives. We wanted the hospital to be operated in accordance with Jewish law and to function under the Rebbe’s guidance.
Since we were from Melbourne and didn’t know too many people in Crown Heights, we sought out Rabbi Yudel Krinsky, the Rebbe’s secretary. We came to New York, met with Rabbi Krinsky, presented him with the check and returned home to await the Rebbe’s response.
It came shortly thereafter in the form of a three-page letter, dated the 15th of Tammuz, 5746 – that is, 22nd of July, 1986.
The Rebbe opened the letter by quoting the saying of our Sages: “The reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself,” and then continued:
A Letter for You
Fri, May 15, 2020
On April 15, 1981 – the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan – the Rebbe celebrated his 79th birthday with a farbrengen at which he spoke about Tzivos Hashem (“Army of G-d”), a children’s organization he had founded six months prior. The mission of this organization, the Rebbe said, was to motivate children to do good deeds in order to hasten the coming of the Mashiach. But since this “Army of G-d” was spread all over the world, the best way to bring all the children together – to achieve true unity – was through Torah.
Therefore, the Rebbe suggested that a special Torah scroll be written in which only children would have the privilege of buying a letter. They would be united through this Torah scroll – the Children’s Torah Scroll.
Not only would this project unite the children, it would bring about a special blessing for the Jewish people as a whole, at a time when they needed it most.
The Rebbe specified that the writing of this Torah scroll should begin immediately and that it should be done in Eretz Yisrael – the land which is constantly watched over by G-d – and particularly in Jerusalem, the city of unity which, unlike the rest of the Holy Land, was never divided among the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Furthermore, it should be written in the historic Chabad synagogue, which is located in the oldest part of Jerusalem and named after the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek.
Immediately thereafter, I was appointed to lead this campaign and received specific instructions from the Rebbe.
All Jewish children under Bar/Bat Mitzvah age would be eligible to buy a letter for the token price of one dollar (or the equivalent in their country’s currency). Adults could sign up very young children, but if they were old enough to fill out the registration form, the Rebbe wanted them to do it themselves.
The Rebbe even described a child as he fills out the form, rolling up his sleeves, sticking his tongue out between his teeth as he labors with his pencil to write his name.
It was important for each child’s donation to be properly acknowledged, the Rebbe said, but he didn’t want a standard receipt to go out. He wanted the children to receive a beautiful certificate, which featured in its four corners drawings of holy sites in Israel – specifically the Western Wall, Rachel’s tomb, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
In Mint Condition
Fri, May 08, 2020
One fine autumn morning in 1952, while I was studying in the Chabad yeshivah at 770, one of the Rebbe’s secretaries came running into the study hall, asking me if I had a driver’s license. I said that I did. I had gotten it at age sixteen upon the advice of my family while home in Boston for the summer. “Oh good,” the secretary said. “The Rebbe wants to go to the Ohel [the resting place of the Previous Rebbe] as soon as possible and needs someone to drive him there. Can you take him?”
That is how I came to drive the Rebbe to the Ohel for the first time. Afterwards, I was privileged to drive the Rebbe there many hundreds of times in the course of the forty years that I worked in his office. On many of these occasions the Rebbe would speak with me about office matters or other timely issues.
Fast forward to Tuesday, May 8, 1990, just five days before the scheduled annual Lag B’Omer parade at Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters. On the road returning from the Ohel, the Rebbe asked me if it would be possible to mint a silver coin – like a silver dollar – that he would be able to give out during the parade.
That year large crowds were expected, because when Lag B’Omer came out on a Sunday many more children, especially public-school children from the entire tri-state area, could attend.
To the Rebbe’s question I responded that I had no knowledge of the process of minting a coin, but as soon as we got back I would make inquiries.
That day, after we finished the evening prayers and I drove the Rebbe home, I sat down with my son, Hillel Dovid, and my son-in-law, Yosef Baruch Friedman to make inquiries. It was already nighttime and most businesses in America were closed by then, so we tried contacting mints around the world. We soon learned that minting a coin is a complicated procedure and would take considerable time. Although it was not a simple project, we found two mints that were willing to try to mint the coin for us in a few days.
Making the world a smaller place
Thu, Apr 30, 2020
I was a young yeshivah student, just twenty-one years old, who didn’t know anything about electronics; I didn’t even know how a telephone operated. All I knew was how to dial – that’s as far as my knowledge went. But, by Divine Providence, I happened to be the right person at the right place at the right time, and I became a crucial cog in a wheel that eventually became the World Lubavitch Communication Center.
It all started in 1970, when Chabad was commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the passing of the Previous Rebbe on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which of course was also the twentieth anniversary of the Rebbe’s assumption of leadership. And there was a request from chasidim in Israel for the proceedings in Brooklyn to be broadcast live.
In those days, to make a live audio broadcast, three things were needed: number one, a phone line; number two, a place from which to operate; and number three, a room with view of the synagogue where the ceremonies would be held.
As it happened, I had all three. While a student at the Chabad yeshivah, I had been assigned a room in 770 that was available at the time. This room had been the office of one of the Rebbe’s secretaries – Rabbi Moshe Leib Rodshtein – but had stood empty since his passing in 1967. Of course, it had a phone, and also a window overlooking the large synagogue below, which had been installed so that he could participate in the prayer services while ill. From there it was possible to observe and record the entire event.
That first broadcast – which unfortunately, due to the time difference, did not reach Israel because it was Shabbat there already – was nonetheless successful, as people in Chicago and Los Angeles were able to listen in. Also, after Shabbat was over, the Rebbe held another farbrengen, and this time the chasidim in Israel got to hear it live.
Afterwards we heard that the Rebbe was pleased with the broadcast, and that he even mentioned to one of his secretaries that he was wondering why it hadn’t been done before. So, we decided to make these live broadcasts on a regular basis.
The initial setup was very simple. An Israeli student named Shmuel (Mulik) Rivkin, who had some engineering know-how, opened up the mouthpiece of the telephone and connected the wires to the earphones of a tape recorder, which gave us the ability to broadcast.
Wed, Apr 29, 2020
After the Six Day War, there was a great deal of tension along the Israeli-Egyptian border, which reached a crisis point in the middle of 1969 when the Egyptians announced the end of the ceasefire agreement and launched the War of Attrition.
In January of 1970, I participated with my paratrooper unit in Operation Rhodes, one of the famous battles that led to ending this war. We attacked an Egyptian commando base on Shadwan Island, a large coral island at the mouth of the Gulf of Suez, with the goal of taking Egyptian soldiers captive so they could then be exchanged for Israeli POWs. The operation was successful, but during the battle three of our soldiers were killed and seven were wounded, myself included. I was hit while attempting to rescue my wounded companions, and as a result of this injury, my right leg was amputated.
My rehabilitation process included intense physical activity, which led to my participation in various athletic competitions. In 1976, together with a delegation of disabled athletes from Israel, I competed in the Paralympic Games taking place that year in Toronto, where I won a gold medal for the 100-meter sprint and our team won third place out of the forty countries participating.
On the way back to Israel, the delegation stopped in New York where the secretary of the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization, Yosef Lautenberg, had arranged for us to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
As our buses arrived at Chabad Headquarters in Crown Heights, we felt the great excitement of the chasidim who were waiting to greet us. They welcomed us into the big synagogue, and then they were asked to leave while our seating was arranged with a great deal of space in between, but we learned the reason for this only later.
When the Rebbe entered, the hall grew silent as a feeling of awe filled the room. He spoke to us in Hebrew, and although at times we found it hard to understand his Hebrew due to his strong Yiddish accent, our impression was that we were in the presence of a very special man who deeply cared about us.
The Rebbe’s message to us was that we were heroes, and that our injuries proved G-d had given us unique strengths beyond those of a regular person. These strengths – this “special spiritual energy,” as he put it – enabled us “to overcome that which ordinary eyes perceive as a physical, bodily lack.”
Scroll to the End of Exile
Fri, Apr 17, 2020
While I was enrolled as a student in Chabad’s yeshivah in Crown Heights, a remarkable event took place, which involved a no less remarkable object – the Mashiach’s Sefer Torah that the Previous Rebbe had commissioned but that was never finished.
At the height of the Holocaust – on Simchas Torah of 1941 – the Previous Rebbe had announced that he planned to write a Torah scroll with which to greet the Messiah. It was the darkest time for the Jewish people and the Previous Rebbe sought to bring some measure of reassurance to all those deeply troubled by what was happening in the world. These were “the birth pangs of Mashiach” he said, “and we will write a Torah scroll with which to welcome his arrival.”
Although great pains were taken to obtain the highest quality parchement and the best scribe, and although the project was begun with great fanfare, for reasons unknown, the Torah scroll was never completely finished. The project was suspended and the scroll was placed in an old wooden ark – an aron kodesh – where it rested for many years. The Torah stood there ninety-nine percent complete.
Sometime in 1968, the Previous Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Eliyahu Simpson, noticed that the old wooden ark – which stood in the office of Rabbi Shmuel Levitin in 770 – had deteriorated over time, and he ordered a new one. And then he requested that the Rebbe move the Sefer Torah to the new ark. The Rebbe responded that he would do so that afternoon before the onset of Shabbat.
Now it was my custom to pray Minchah, the afternoon prayers, in the Rebbe’s synagogue before Shabbat. I was always there when the Rebbe prayed together with a small group, and it was always very beautiful prayer service – a quiet intimate Minchah, very extraordinary.
That day, the word got around that the Rebbe was going to move the Torah scroll from the old aron kodesh to the new one, and people were standing around to see if they could catch a glimpse of this event. One could go around the building and see into the room through a window but, out of respect for the Rebbe, I would not even contemplate such a thing. Instead, I waited, along with some others, all of us hoping to catch a glimpse through the doorway.
Open Seders will Open Hearts
Fri, Apr 17, 2020
My father, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, served as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 1983 until 1993, while Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu served as the Sephardic chief rabbi. During their tenure they traveled to the United States three times for the purpose of visiting the central Jewish communities in America and getting to know their leaders. They met with the most highly regarded religious authorities and heads of yeshivot to discuss important matters of mutual concern.
I served as my father’s right-hand man and I was privileged to join him on these trips. This is how it happened that I was present each time – in 1983, 1986, and 1989 – when the two chief rabbis met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Each meeting with the Rebbe lasted about three hours and involved a lively discussion which I found fascinating. The Rebbe spoke a very correct and clear Hebrew which he used during these meetings to accommodate Rabbi Eliyahu, who did not speak Yiddish.
Their conversations were far ranging – they debated a wide variety of questions in all realms of Torah law; they spoke about activities of the Israeli Rabbinate and the state of Yiddishkeit in Israel; and they discussed the prophecies concerning the coming of the Mashiach and the Final Redemption. They went from topic to topic, without pause, and their conversations were recorded, transcribed and later published.
During the first visit in 1983, the Rebbe asked the chief rabbis how they felt being outside of Israel. My father said that he had never left the Holy Land before, and that the time away was very difficult for him.
To bring him comfort, the Rebbe expounded on the Torah verse, “Jacob lifted his feet and went to the land of the people of the East,” pointing out that while Jacob’s departure from the Land of Israel was a spiritual descent, later it turned out that this descent was for the sake of a greater ascent. All Jacob’s sons – who would give rise to the Twelve Tribes of Israel – were born outside the Land. This is why the great 11th century Torah commentator, Rashi, reads the phrase “lifted his feet” as meaning Jacob “moved with ease” because G-d had promised to protect him and bring him back home. Indeed, Rashi goes so far as to say that “Jacob’s heart lifted his feet” – that is, his joy wasn’t just in his heart, but went down all the way to his feet. Based on this interpretation, the Rebbe concluded that even if one must leave Israel temporarily, one should be joyful, since a great ascent would come from this descent.
Nothing is Impossible
Wed, Apr 01, 2020
When the Rebbe turned seventy, he challenged his chasidim to establish seventy-one new institutions.
I had the honor of being present at the farbrengen when the Rebbe celebrated his seventieth birthday. I vividly recall the Rebbe saying that some people are telling him that now is the time to rest, take it easy and retire, but he believes that now is the time to begin work with ever greater vigor, as the Ethics of the Fathers states, “at eighty [one attains] strength.” He then concluded, “So since from seventy, we are moving toward eighty, over the course of this year, at least seventy-one new institutions should be established.”
“I will be a partner with every individual who will dedicate himself to this project,” the Rebbe promised. “From the money that have been contributed to the Seventy Fund, I will cover at least ten percent of the expenses involved in establishing these seventy-one institutions.”
By 1972, I had been serving for seven years as the Rebbe’s emissary to the West Coast and when I heard the Rebbe’s words, I immediately passed over a note via his secretary that I and my team would be taking upon ourselves to establish seven of these seventy-one institutions.
In my opinion, there are only two kinds of people in this world – those who believe, and those who don’t believe. For those who believe, anything is possible, and there are no questions. For those who don’t believe, there are no answers. So, although we didn’t know where the funds would come from, we believed and – together with the emissaries we recruited for the task – we managed to establish not only seven Chabad centers but twelve.
The next day, our California delegation had an audience with the Rebbe during which we presented him with a silver crown to fit atop his personal Torah scroll. I also invited Rabbi Chaim Itche Drizin, who was then working in Northern California as a Talmud Torah teacher, to join us. I asked him, “How would you like to serve as an emissary with us?” And he responded “I’d love to.”
During the audience, I pointed to Rabbi Drizin and said to the Rebbe, “He will establish the first new Chabad House of the seven that we promised.”
And the Rebbe looked at us and smiled.