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!
No Half and Half
Wed, Oct 17, 2018
Mine was not an auspicious beginning. I was born in Vilna in the midst of World War Two, just a week before the German bombardment of the city began in 1941. It was difficult to assemble a minyan for my circumcision, as everyone was scared to come outdoors and, thereafter, my parents had to hide me in an orphanage while they fled the Nazis.
My father did not survive the war, although my mother and I did. She remarried and my step-father, David Sattler, raised me like a real father, and I always considered him as such. He was a descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of the Chasidic Movement, but after the war he became a Communist. This mindset also influenced how he directed my education toward secular studies, but, while I responded to his guidance, I also had questions of my own.
After we moved to Haifa, Israel, my parents found it hard to make ends meet. In order to bolster the family finances, I started to tutor younger children. It was then that I had my first major insight. I am naturally sensitive to interpersonal relationships, so I noticed a difference between the children studying in secular schools and those studying in religious schools. The religious ones had an air of calmness, and their relations with their parents were entirely different, much more respectful.
After graduating high school in 1959, I was drafted into the IDF. During my last year in the army, I began to study mechanical engineering at the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology. Here, too, I noticed a disturbing phenomenon
The Struggling Economist
Wed, Oct 10, 2018
Most tourists to Jerusalem know my family name – Mandelbaum – because they have visited the site where my family’s home once stood. It had been destroyed in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence, and a gate was erected on its site. During the nineteen years that Jerusalem was divided, in order to proceed from one part (the Israeli part) to the other part (occupied by Jordan), everyone had to pass through what was called – after the ruin of our home – the Mandelbaum Gate. When Jerusalem was reunited after the Six-Day War, the Mandelbaum Gate was dismantled, but the site is part of Jerusalem’s history now and most tourists are taken to see it.
As a teenager, I served in the Israeli army but my service was cut short due to injury. For a time I studied in yeshivah, but ultimately I decided to enroll in university in order to study economy.
Why economy? Partly because I saw my family’s financial situation plummet – we were one of the wealthiest families in Jerusalem before the State of Israel was founded, but during the War of Independence, we lost almost everything and became refugees. So I saw economic issues from a personal point of view.
I studied at Hebrew University, where I received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but after I got married and started a family, I didn’t have the financial resources to continue on to a doctorate. Then one day I read about a US State Department grant program for economics students from developing countries.
Unbelievably, from among some two hundred Israelis who applied, I was the one chosen. When I asked why I was accepted, I was told that every other applicant tried to impress the selection committee with their knowledge, but I was the only one who said I didn’t know and wanted to learn.
The program of study was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; it was a very prestigious program with candidates carefully chosen by the State Department. It was an elite group and studying with them gave me extensive connections throughout the world, as all the graduates achieved very high positions.
Can You Land This Plane?
Thu, Oct 04, 2018
The events that I am about to relate took place in 1958, when I was just twenty-four years old. I was enrolled in rabbinic studies at Yeshiva University, whose Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik strongly encouraged his students to serve in the armed forces. He felt that the United States had been very good to the Jewish people, and that we had an obligation to do our part in serving the country.
He instituted a policy that five students in every rabbinic class of Yeshiva University were obliged to volunteer as chaplains in the US armed forces. These five were selected through a lottery system, and I happened to be one of them. I passed the physical and was informed that a chaplain was needed in the US Air Force, so this is where I prepared to go.
However, my father objected. He felt, as did many Torah observant people back then, that the armed forces – with their secular environment – were not a place for religious boys.
With Rav Soloveitchik telling me to do one thing and my father telling me to do another, I was stuck. But, as we read in the Talmud, “two verses contradict each other, until a third verse comes to resolve the dispute.”
I decided that the “third verse,” should come from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Why did I choose the Rebbe? For three reasons: First, I had heard stories about him, that he could solve difficult problems and how even non-religious people would go to him for advice.
From Rolling Stones to Wrapping Tefillin
Thu, Oct 04, 2018
Several months after I returned from a concert tour with the Rolling Stones, I met the Rebbe and – because of him and despite of me – I experienced an unexpected spiritual awakening.
My parents were both Holocaust survivors from Belorussia, and I had been born in a DP camp right after the war. I was raised Torah observant with Yiddish as my first language. After we came to the United States in 1950, I kept Shabbat, I went to yeshivah, and I put on tefillin.
But, after being exposed to a lot of inconsistency and some hypocrisy, I started to question it all, and by the mid-1960s, I stopped keeping Torah. After a time of experimenting with acting, I found myself at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo, studying law and dabbling in music promotion.
In my early twenties, I found myself hanging out with some very famous people in the music and entertainment business – like Carly Simon and Chip Monck. Through Chip’s efforts, I was invited to travel with the Rolling Stones on their 1972 summer tour, and I got to see more depraved human behaviour than most people will ever see in a lifetime.
Turning Rascals into Rabbis
Thu, Sep 20, 2018
I was born in Siedlce, Poland, four years before World War Two broke out, at which time my family fled to Russia. Despite the difficulties of living on the run, my father spared no effort to educate me and my siblings in the ways of Judaism – in keeping with the education he, himself, had received at Chabad’s Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Warsaw. After the war, we came to Israel, where I learned in the Chabad yeshivas in Tel Aviv and in Lod.
After I got married in 1961, I began working as a teacher, eventually taking a job with the Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Kfar Chabad, where I was placed in charge of the Chassidic development of the students.
Over the years, hundreds of young men learned in the yeshivah. Understandably, from time to time, there were students who misbehaved. When such cases would be discussed in the teachers’ meetings, sometimes the staff would argue regarding the best way to respond. I always tended towards being lenient, and I’d try to convince the other teachers not to react harshly. Because of this, staff members nicknamed me “the Berditchever” – after Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who always emphasized the good in Jews and was called “the Advocate of the Jewish People.”
At one point in the mid-1970s, I had to deal with a really problematic group of students in the yeshivah. They were considered difficult to discipline, and the widespread opinion among the senior staff was that that they should be dealt with severely.
I opposed this approach, insisting that they be dealt with more leniently. But I also had my doubts – perhaps I was being too soft, perhaps the other teachers were right and we should be more firm with them.
I decided to ask the Rebbe what to do.
When I Won the Lottery
Wed, Sep 12, 2018
I was born in 1926 in Kursk, Russia. It was at the beginning of Soviet rule, but despite the difficulties involved, my parents made sure to give me a Jewish education.
When I was ten years old, my parents managed to get a permit to leave Russia, and we came to the Israel, then the British Mandate for Palestine. There I continued my Torah studies.
I was twenty-two years old when the State of Israel was established. I joined the Israeli army and served with the rabbinate of the IDF, eventually advancing to the position of officer in charge of religious affairs. My job description included supervising kashrut and overseeing prayers during Shabbat and holidays. On Rosh Hashanah, I blew the shofar for the soldiers, and on Passover I organized the Seder. I saw that if one had the will, one could gain much spiritual benefit from influencing soldiers within the framework of such a job. And indeed, the Rebbe encouraged me very much to take advantage of my position, and to use every means possible to strengthen the Torah observance among the soldiers.
When I completed my compulsory service, I was invited to sign up for the standing army. I debated doing so because I had gotten married in the meanwhile, and this position necessitated my staying on the base for Shabbat and holidays – not a convenient thing in my new status as family man. But I didn’t decide on my own. I wrote to the Rebbe and followed his advice to lengthen my service.
Long Live the Revolution!
Thu, Sep 06, 2018
As a left-wing radical in the 1960s, I was advocating an anti-war revolution, until I met the Rebbe who drafted me into an entirely different revolution – and, while doing so, changed my life.
I grew up in the 1940s, in the home of my Yiddish-speaking grandparents. It was a kosher home, respectful of Judaism, but not a Torah-observant home. For my Bar Mitzvah, I didn’t put on tefillin although I did learn the Hebrew alphabet, but that was about it.
As a kid, I was constantly picked on, and I discovered the connection between being picked on and being Jewish. That’s when I decided that I would help other people who were being picked on and discriminated against. When I went to college at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, I joined the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). I became the president of our NAACP chapter and launched a campaign to remove racist fraternities from campus. As a result, I earned a name as a radical, a reputation which was further enhanced when I became involved in the protests against nuclear testing, and later against the Vietnam War.
I was majoring in philosophy and reading the early writings of Karl Marx, the Jewish originator of Communist theory. His writings appealed to me because Marx was very much in favor of kindness, very pro people, and very anti letting those in power take advantage of the poor. And due to his influence, I became an atheist because, as Marx famously declared, “religion is the opiate of the masses.”
One Deed is Worth A Thousand Sermons
Thu, Aug 30, 2018
I am the son of Rabbi Chaim Gutnick, who fled Europe during World War Two and made his way to Australia, where I was born. In his work as a community rabbi, my father was very much guided by the Rebbe, and I would like to relate here a few anecdotes which my father had shared with me.
In 1965, my father came to visit the Rebbe and complained to him that although he was known as a great orator who could make people laugh and cry at the same time, and who was invited to speak in many places, he felt that he wasn’t making a real difference. “I must have given thousands of speeches in my career,” my father told the Rebbe, “but how many of them have really hit home? How many people have been moved by my speeches to actually change their lives?”
The Rebbe responded, “If you speak sincerely and you speak with passion, your message will enter the hearts of others, whether you know it or not. But if you really want to see the effect of your words, then you must speak about practical things, not just concepts. Instead of just talking about Shabbat or kashrut in general terms, you should urge the audience to try to fulfill these mitzvot as much as they can. Give them something practical to do – even if it’s just one little thing. And then you will see results.”
My father was impressed by the Rebbe’s advice and put it into practice immediately. When he spoke about Shabbat now he asked the non-observant in his audience to begin by not lighting a fire on Shabbat, by giving up one little thing – smoking. He said, “I want you to do me this personal favor. Your doctors will say it’s good for you, and as your rabbi, I’ll also say that it’s good for you.”
Fourth Time’s the Charm
Thu, Aug 23, 2018
I came to Chabad many years ago, but for me to say that is not accurate because, really, Chabad came to me.
In 1970, while studying at the University of Buffalo, I attended a class on Jewish mysticism being taught by Rabbi Noson Gurary. As a result of that class, I became interested in finding
out more about my roots and, during my last semester at college, I had my first encounter with the Rebbe.
Rabbi Gurary had arranged for me and others like me to come to Crown Heights for a long weekend. At the time I was a typical alienated Jewish-American kid. I had very long curly hair, past my shoulders, and I vividly remember feeling like I was sticking out, sitting at that farbrengen listening to the Rebbe with a thousand Jews who looked like Rabbi Gurary. They all had long beards and they were wearing long black coats and big black hats. I felt like I had been transported to a different planet, to a different dimension. But it wasn’t a negative feeling at all. It’s just that I hadn’t known that there were all these Jews living this kind of lifestyle in modern America. And while it boggled my mind, it also impressed me because these guys were bucking the system – in the melting pot of America, where assimilation ruled, they didn’t care whether they blended in or not.
To make a long story short, this led me to enroll in the Morristown yeshivah for two weeks, which turned into three weeks, which turned into three years. I went from a college student who learned maybe ten hours per week, to a yeshivah student who learned ten hours per day, and I couldn’t get enough.
A Wonderful Fainting
Wed, Aug 15, 2018
From the time my husband and I got married in 1986, we wanted children, but five years passed and I had still not gotten pregnant. Naturally, we sought medical advice, but the doctors had nothing to tell us because they could find nothing wrong. Everything was fine – there was no reason why I shouldn’t get pregnant.
Then our friend, Judah Wernick, suggested we go to the Lubavitcher Rebbe to ask for a blessing. But I resisted going to see the Rebbe because I just didn’t believe in miracle workers. Still, Judah kept telling me, “You have to go … you have to go … you have to go.” After a period of time, he wore me down, and I agreed. Also my Israeli husband, who was having a hard time finding employment in the US – he worked as a taxi driver and was very unhappy doing that – wanted to ask for a blessing for a better livelihood.
It was in 1991 that we went to see the Rebbe – on a Sunday, when he was giving out dollars for charity. I was astonished to see how many people were waiting in line, but Judah had arranged for Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson to take us through a back door. Next thing I knew, we were in front of the Rebbe asking for a blessing for children.
He promised it would happen “in the near future.” And he gave each of us two dollars for charity, adding, “Give this when you become pregnant.”