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!
Band of Brothers
Tue, Dec 10, 2019
At an early age I was introduced to music, a heritage of my family.
My uncle, Albert Piamenta, was an Israeli saxophonist who became famous for mixing Judeo-Arabic music with jazz. My mother also loved music, so much so that the first piece of furniture she bought for our house in Tel Aviv was a piano. And my older brother, Yosi, was a guitar player who, in the course of his career, created a whole new style – a blend of rock and Israeli compositions, which had a major influence on Jewish music.
I grew up playing piano but, after a time, I discovered the magical sound of the flute and that became my instrument of choice. At age seventeen, I started performing with Yosi, who was then a soldier and playing in an IDF band. I vividly remember joining him for a concert just when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973. We performed for the soldiers on the front lines with bombs flying over us.
A year after the war we formed a band – called the Piamenta Band – which became very popular. So much so that when the famed saxophonist, Stan Getz – one of the greatest jazz stylists ever – arrived in Israel in 1976 and heard our music, he invited us to tour and record with him. That was the first time in history that a musician of such caliber collaborated with Israeli musicians, and it caused a media sensation.
As our fame grew, we were sent by the Israeli government to perform throughout the U.S. and Canada at 30th anniversary celebrations of the State of Israel. But, by this time, I had become Torah-observant, and shortly thereafter, I was exposed to the teachings of the Alter Rebbe, the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement, and I decided to stay in New York to learn Torah and chasidic teachings. I also formed an informal yeshivah of other musicians which I called
The Art of Faith
Fri, Dec 06, 2019
As a young adult pursuing an art degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, I got caught up in the culture of the Sixties. It was not until I dropped out of school and got introduced to Chabad that things started to change for me. This happened in 1972 when I was twenty.
At a certain point after I enrolled in Tiferes Bachurim, the Chabad yeshivah in Morristown, New Jersey, an opportunity came up for me and some of my fellow students to have a private audience with the Rebbe. We prepared by increasing our Torah studies, and we went in one by one. I recall being very anxious and not knowing what to expect once I crossed the threshold into the Rebbe’s study. It is hard for me to describe what I felt because it seemed to me like a different reality. And I thought, “I have to take this spiritual feeling and somehow incorporate it into my art.”
As I was standing near the entrance to the room, not sure what to do next, the Rebbe said, “Come closer.” So I walked right up to the Rebbe’s desk and handed him the letter I had written listing my questions, and I also put on his desk three small samples of my art because I wanted him to advise me what I should do with my artistic talent. I thought that perhaps I should become a scribe as I was good at Hebrew calligraphy, and I believed that if I were to be religious this was probably a more suitable profession than becoming a painter.
But the Rebbe had another idea. He said that I should consider doing illuminated marriage contracts, ketubot, which have been the subject of Jewish art for many centuries. I asked him if I might also illustrate children’s books and the Rebbe approved of that, as long as it didn’t interfere with my study schedule at the yeshivah. By this point I was so excited that he was giving me the green light to express my talent, that I actually exclaimed Baruch Hashem (thank G-d) out loud three times.
Summer Camp for Life
Thu, Nov 28, 2019
My father was Rabbi Yisroel Yitzchok Piekarski, who served as the rosh yeshivah – head of the central Chabad yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, for forty-two years, from 1951 until 1993.
This may be curious in and of itself, as we were not followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. My family were followers of the Amshinover Rebbe. I, myself, was enrolled as a student in the yeshivah of Chatam Sofer on the East Side of Manhattan, where the word “Lubavitch” didn’t usually come up.
In fact, I knew nothing about Lubavitch until the passing of the Previous Rebbe in 1950, when every newspaper in New York had a picture of his funeral on the front page. Seeing this on every newsstand, I came to yeshivah and asked “Who is this? What is Lubavitch?”
Not getting an answer that satisfied me, I decided to ask my father. But I got nowhere with him either. I think this was because my father did not want me to have too much connection with Lubavitch because it contradicted the way he was brought up.
But then, some months after the Previous Rebbe’s passing in 1950, my father got a call from Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, the administrator of the Tomchei Temimim yeshivot, telling him that Lubavitch was looking for a rosh yeshivah and that he had come highly recommended by a number of people. (My father was considered a Talmudic prodigy from an early age and he had developed a reputation as a Torah genius.) Although he was reluctant at first, he took the job after several meetings with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who had succeeded his father-in-law as the seventh Rebbe.
A Teacher’s Prayer
Tue, Nov 19, 2019
I began my journey toward Torah observance in Melbourne, Australia, where I connected with Chabad chasidim. After a time they felt that, in order for me to progress on my spiritual path, I needed to enroll in a yeshivah somewhere abroad – perhaps in the U.S. or England or Israel.
I wrote about this matter to the Rebbe, who responded that I must go to Israel – he was quite definite that it should be Israel and not anywhere else. So, of course, I did as he advised.
In 1962 I went to Israel, where I studied for over a year at Yeshivah Tomchei Temimim in Kfar Chabad, and then married my wife Devorah and settled in Bnei Brak. After a time, the Rebbe recommended that I base my livelihood on my knowledge of English. This was later realized when I become the leader of an English-speaking program for those who came from a similar background as mine and had little previous education in Judaism.
After the Six Day War, there was a tremendous awakening of Jews in English-speaking countries who wanted to come to Israel, reconnect with Judaism and study Torah in yeshivah. But the teachers at Tomchei Temimim did not know how to handle them because they had no experience with this type of student who lacked basic Jewish knowledge.
In the fall of 1967, Rabbi Nachum Trebnik, the head of Tomchei Temimim, went to spend the High Holidays in New York and reported his exchange with the Rebbe back to the yeshivah administration. The Rebbe advised that a special program be set up for these young men and to appoint an English-speaker with some yeshivah experience to look after them. The Rebbe suggested that I be the one to head this program.
The Man with the Fax Machine
Fri, Nov 15, 2019
I come from a respected Lithuanian family that had not connection to Chabad or chasidic ways. In fact, just the opposite. My great-grandfather, Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz, was ones of the senior disciples of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, and I was sent to study at Yeshivat Kamenitz in Jerusalem.
But in 1969, I was privileged to be introduced to the Tanya, the seminal work of the Alter Rebbe, the 19th century founder of the Chabad Movement. And from that point on, my connection to Chabad only grew stronger. I participated in the studies of chasidic teachings at the Chabad yeshivah, although a directive came from the Rebbe that this had to be with my parents’ knowledge and consent.
When I got engaged in 1975, I managed, despite my parents’ opposition, to travel to New York to seek the Rebbe’s blessing for my upcoming marriage. In a private audience, the Rebbe showered me with blessings and encouraged me to stay in New York until the wedding, since it would be better for me to be separate from my future bride until then. “You will be able to learn the topics of Jewish law that you need to know before your wedding here as well,” the Rebbe said, “but you should write to your parents and future parents-in-law to find out whether they need you for the preparations for the wedding.”
But when I told the Rebbe that my parents hadn’t wanted me to come to New York at all and were pushing me to return, he instructed me to go back after Purim which was two weeks later. The Rebbe explained his instruction, “It is not clear whether being near the bride puts you at risk of violating a Torah prohibition or a rabbinic decree, but creating discord is certainly prohibited by Torah law…”
Happiness: The All-Purpose Cure
Thu, Nov 07, 2019
As a three-year-old child, I fell while running down the stairs too quickly and I got hurt. But it took some time for my parents to realize that the fall had caused my hearing to become impaired. Once they knew, they took me to the best doctors they could find in Jerusalem, where we were living, and the various tests conducted by the doctors confirmed that I had suffered inner ear damage. In order to hear properly, I would have to wear hearing aids.
Because of my young age, the hearing impairment also hindered the development of my speech. I had to work with a speech therapist in order to learn correct pronunciation of words. But that therapist only spoke Hebrew, and my first language was Yiddish – the language my parents spoke at home, and the dominant language in the school I attended. So, she told my parents that I needed to speak Hebrew and that they should speak Hebrew to me at home. My father didn’t like this idea, which would necessitate the whole family having to switch to Hebrew, and he decided to write to the Rebbe about this.
I was five when my father wrote to the Rebbe, explaining the reasons for the speech therapist’s request and the challenges involved, and asking what was the right thing to do in such a situation. The Rebbe replied that “it isn’t advisable to burden your son by changing his primary language, and therefore you should continue to speak with him and to learn with him in the same language which he has spoken and learned in until now.”
The therapist accepted the Rebbe’s verdict, and she eventually thanked my mother, who worked alongside her during my speech therapy sessions because, as a result of my case, she got to learn another language. As for me, I continued studying in Yiddish in my school, and eventually picked up Hebrew and some English as well.
The Yearning Violin
Mon, Oct 28, 2019
During my fourth year of study at the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology, I experienced a spiritual awakening that was difficult for me to define at the time. I searched in all sorts of places before arriving at the conclusion that my path lay in Judaism. As a result of a connection that I forged with Rabbi Reuven Dunin of Haifa, and with Rabbi Moshe Weber of Jerusalem, I began studying at the Lubavitch yeshivah in Kfar Chabad. And, after about a year of study, I began to work as a teacher in the Chabad trade School, and then got married.
My first visit to the Rebbe took place in 1968, a year after my wedding, in the month of Tishrei, the month of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. As I was leaving for New York, my acquaintances recommended that I take my violin with me, and I did.
I began playing the violin at a relatively young age, and I had been privileged to study with some of the best teachers in Israel. And I played with a number of orchestras, including the Technion orchestra, so I had a wide musical background which I eventually integrated into the chasidic world of music. And indeed, during the time that I was studying in yeshivah, I was privileged to play a few times at farbrengens and at various Chabad events held on kibbutzim throughout Israel.
During my visit to the Rebbe in New York, I played a few times in my hosts’ sukkah, and then came Simchat Torah. At the end of the holiday, the Rebbe held a farbrengen and, after conducting the Havdalah ceremony, distributed wine from his cup. When I came up to receive some, I asked the Rebbe if I might play my violin. The Rebbe looked at me for a moment with a penetrating gaze and said, “Very good, please.”
I took out the violin which, at the urging of some of the chasidim I had run back to
The Youngest Diplomat
Mon, Oct 28, 2019
My family’s connection with the Rebbe began in 1971 when my father, Tzvi Caspi, worked for Israel’s foreign service in New York and the President, Zalman Shazar, came to the United States. Mr. Shazar – who was born in Russia to a Lubavitch family – wanted to visit the Rebbe, and my father was given the task of making the arrangements.
I was ten years old at the time, and I remember the president’s visit very well. As he was leaving, Mr. Shazar told my father, “You know, the protocol is that when the leader of a country travels to another country, his first visit is to the leader of the hosting country. I am visiting our leader, and that’s why my first visit was to the Rebbe.”
From that point on, a strong connection developed between my father and the Rebbe. They met many times, engaging in very intense conversations which lasted well into the night.
For Simchat Torah of 1971, the Rebbe invited a large group of Israeli diplomats and dignitaries to participate in the dancing with the Torah at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. My father was very happy to organize this, and he also brought me along.
I vividly recall the dense crowd, the noise and commotion, and looking down from a high platform at the restless sea of black hats. And then, suddenly, the room fell silent. You could hear a pin drop. And the sea of hats split down the middle as if by magic, forming a path through which the Rebbe entered. I watched astounded – this was my first encounter with the phenomenon called Chabad-Lubavitch – marveling at the special connection the Rebbe had with his chasidim.
Settling the Score
Mon, Oct 28, 2019
After the Six Day War of 1967 and the liberation of the Judea and Samaria territories, I became involved with building new settlements there. I decided to use my financial knowledge and the experience I had gained in political activism in the cause of developing Jewish neighborhoods in these regions. But, although I had good political connections, I had a hard time securing bank loans, which were essential for this purpose.
The specific matter of Jewish settlement in Hebron really lit a fire under me. One of the reasons for this was that I had a personal connection to the city. I was born there on the 17th of August, 1929, and my brit was held on the 24th of August, the day of the Hebron massacre, when Arabs rampaged through the city killing sixty-seven Jews and wounding many others. So I really wanted to expand the small Jewish settlement there. I wanted to create a connection between Kiryat Arba and Hebron, two cities that were separated by an empty no-man’s land which was possible to purchase at that time. My idea was to call the new settlement “Kiryat Chabad,” in hopes of drawing Chabad chasidim to move there, to renew the historical Chabad settlement in Hebron which dated back to the 18th century.
After Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977, I met with him and laid out my plan regarding Hebron. I explained my challenges with raising the money to purchase the land and getting the required insurance for investing in infrastructure in the settlements. I proposed that the government establish a national insurance company for this purpose. This company, Inbal, was established and, because of it, factories were built and both Hebron and Kiryat Arba benefitted.
Mon, Oct 28, 2019
Toward the end of the 1960s, while studying in Chabad’s Yeshivat Torat Emet in Jerusalem, I heard about a charter flight being arranged to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the High Holidays. Feeling more than excited to spend this special holy time in the presence of the Rebbe, I eagerly signed up.
Before leaving for New York, I went to visit the Gerrer Rebbe to inform him of my upcoming trip. Although I am and always was a Chabad chasid, I had developed a close relationship with the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Alter, a charismatic leader who attracted yeshivah students from different streams of Judaism. Upon hearing my final destination, he asked me to do him a personal favor: “Please give regards in my name to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and my wishes that he be inscribed for a good year.”
When I arrived in New York, I had a chance to meet the Rebbe in a private audience. At the end of the meeting, after we finished discussing my personal issues, I conveyed the Gerrer Rebbe’s regards. As soon as the Rebbe heard the words – “my wishes that he be inscribed for a good year” – he rose from his seat and answered, “Amen! May G-d grant that the blessings we all wish one another be fulfilled.”
I returned to Jerusalem after the conclusion of the month of Tishrei, and the very next day received a message that the Gerrer Rebbe was looking for me. I went to see him after Shabbat ended. When I entered, he was still sitting in his Shabbat attire, his face radiant; he greeted me warmly. After I informed him that I had carried out his instructions, he said, “Tell me something interesting that the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught you.”