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!
Your Son Will Live
Wed, Mar 21, 2018
The story I want to tell begins on September 17th, 1963, when I was three-and-a-half years old. At the time, we were living in McKee City, in Southern New Jersey, where my father had a poultry farm and where he served as the rabbi of the local Orthodox synagogue.
Incidentally, my father, Rabbi Gimpel Orimland, had been educated in Bnei Brak, Israel, where the famed Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was his Torah study partner, and where his teachers were the Chazon Ish and the Steipler Gaon. In other words, he had a Lithuanian yeshivah background, which is as far away from Chasidism as you can get. And this makes this entire story all the more remarkable.
That particular day I had been with my grandmother and step-grandfather and was being driven back home. It was raining hard, visibility was poor, and we were in a car accident. It was a multiple car collision, as the Atlantic City Press reported later, and I went flying out of the windshield together with my grandmother. I landed with my face submerged in a puddle of water and I was drowning. My step-grandfather was killed instantly, but my grandmother managed to crawl over and pull my face out of the water.
I was rushed to the hospital, where they found that my brain was hemorrhaging, and they couldn’t stop it. When my father arrived, he found me unable to see or hear, and unfortunately, the doctors offered little hope for my survival. In fact, they thought I wouldn’t last much longer, and one of them actually told my father to hold off scheduling my step-grandfather’s funeral as he would likely be burying both of us at the same time.
You can just imagine the shock that my parents were in at that moment. Fortunately, the president of my father’s synagogue, a Mr. Gellman, had a brilliant idea, to contact the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a blessing. At first my father demurred – it went against his grain to ask a chasidic rabbi for help – but he was desperate and he had nowhere else to turn.
Later, my father would tell the story of what happened next with a great deal of drama. He said he would never forget it. It was four o’clock in the morning when he placed the call to 770 and was instructed to call back in an hour. It was the longest hour of my father’s life, but then he got to speak with the Rebbe who said to him: “The decree in heaven is over. Your son will live.”
My father was stunned. As he would later say, “This statement lifted my spirits. But I couldn’t stop wondering: how could a person just declare like that: ‘The decree in heaven is over.’ How did he know?” As someone raised in Lithuanian yeshivahs, he couldn’t fathom that a chasidic Rebbe had this knowledge and power.
Wed, Mar 14, 2018
I grew up in Sydney, Australia, in a religious home. After high school, I went to Israel to study in yeshivah for a few years, returning to Australia to enroll in medical school at the University of Sydney. After graduating and completing my medical residency, I married my wife, who is from Melbourne.
Over time, I found myself attracted to Chabad philosophy, which appealed to me intellectually, and I became involved with the Lubavitch community, which was the dominant religious force in Melbourne.
Indeed, it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe who helped me decide to settle in that city. When we first married, my wife and I needed to decide whether to live in Melbourne, where she was from, or in Sydney, where I was from. We wrote to the Rebbe for his advice and received the reply: “Makom dirah kirtzon akeres habayis – your place of residence should be where the woman of the house desires.” And so we settled in Melbourne.
After a time, I was not sure which direction my life should take, so once again I wrote to the Rebbe asking for his advice, and listing four possible options which I had been considering. The first option was to return to Torah study and learn in a kollel for married men; the second was to become a general practitioner; the third was to specialize in some area of general medicine; and the fourth option was to specialize in psychiatry.
In his reply, the Rebbe circled psychiatry and added the words “kdima l’efsharut zu – this option should take precedence.” I followed the Rebbe’s advice and enrolled in psychiatric training. And I have been in psychiatric practice now for over forty years.
When I graduated, the preeminent mode of treatment was psychoanalysis. This school of thought tends to see people’s psychological problems as rooted in the traumas and experiences of the past. The therapist’s role is to facilitate an exploration of those experiences, the idea being that understanding the roots of their problems will help patients to heal. This technique involves many sessions a week for several years.
The Midnight Call
Wed, Mar 07, 2018
My parents were refugees from Poland who met and married in a displaced persons camp in Germany – a place called Foehrenwald, just outside of Munich. Unfortunately, my father did not live long; he died when my mother was pregnant with their first child – me. So I was born in a DP camp to a widow.
My mother never remarried, but eventually she brought me to the United States, and we made our home, together with my grandmother and my aunt, in New York.
When I was eight years old, my mother went looking for a yeshivah for me, but all she could afford was ten dollars a month, when the going price was more like twenty-five dollars a month. She went from yeshivah to yeshivah and could find nothing, until she came to the Lubavitcher yeshivah. There, after hearing her story, they offered to take me in for free. But she wouldn’t accept that, so finally a deal was struck that she would pay five dollars a month. That’s how I became a Lubavitcher.
I was very happy at the Lubavitcher yeshivah. The teachers there were extremely kind, warm and giving. They were chasidim from the old world who honored the Rebbe with how they taught the children.
I had my first private audience with the Rebbe in 1964, when I was fourteen. At the time I was suffering from a chronic disease called ulcerative colitis, which causes painful inflammation of the intestinal lining, and the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Mendel Tenenbaum, told me to go see the Rebbe about it.
I was very intimidated walking into the Rebbe’s office – it was just a very awesome feeling to be in the same room with him. But his smile broke all barriers. The kindness was plain to see on his smiling face.
When I told the Rebbe why I had come, he said, “Ask a doctor if it’s a good idea for you to eat rice. Tell him that a friend has told you to eat rice.” He called himself my “friend” and I was elated. I was a fourteen-year-old boy with no father, and suddenly I had a friend in the Rebbe. It was truly amazing.
When I related this to my mother, she immediately started feeding me rice. She believed in the wisdom of the Rebbe, and if the Rebbe said rice was good for my condition, well, she would make sure I had plenty of it. So I ate rice and, for at least seven years, I experienced no recurrence of the colitis.
The Midnight Call
Wed, Feb 28, 2018
Rabbi Mendel and Mashi Lipskar, the Chabad emissaries whom the Rebbe sent to South Africa in 1972, were instrumental in my becoming Torah observant. After a time, they suggested that I would benefit from learning at Machon Chana in Crown Heights. I took their advice, and it proved to be an amazing experience that lasted two years. The highlight was developing a sense of closeness to the Rebbe. Though I never had a chance to meet him in a personal audience, I attended all his farbrengens (public addresses) and wrote to him often.
In the midst of my studies I returned to South Africa to visit my family. As I was making travel plans to go back to Crown Heights, my brother urged me to make the trip via Israel. He had spent time in Kfar Chabad there and felt that it may be a good place for me to find my marriage match. I was not convinced, so I wrote to the Rebbe to ask his advice. In my letter I
said that I didn’t want to go to Israel and would only go if I knew that I would meet my beshert (true partner) there. In response, the Rebbe underlined the word beshert and wrote next to it “nachon,” meaning “correct.”
So I went to Kfar Chabad, and that’s where I met my husband, a yeshivah student from Australia. We were married in South Africa in December of 1977, after which we returned for a time to Kfar Chabad, as the Rebbe had given my husband a blessing to continue his Torah study in a kollel for married men.
Fast forward to my third pregnancy, as this is the story that I would like to relate here.
I was approximately six months pregnant with my son Danny when, after a routine exam, the doctor said to me: “I’m sorry to tell you, but there is something wrong with your baby’s heart. I would like you to see a cardiac pediatrician as soon as possible so that he can do a proper ultrasound scan and give us more information.”
I did this right away. The cardiac pediatrician said that the baby had a very serious condition called “Fallot’s Tetralogy,” which includes four significant heart defects, one of them being a large hole in the heart. I was naturally extremely upset, and the doctor’s announcement that this was the first time he had seen this condition in utero and he would show my scan to all his medical students did nothing to reassure me.
I phoned my family doctor, Dr. Rodney Unterslak, who suggested that I immediately write to the Rebbe, which I did.
Charity Begins at Home
Wed, Feb 21, 2018
When I was ten years old, my family escaped Russia, together with many other Lubavitcher families. This was right after the war in 1946. We made our way, via displaced persons camps in Europe, to Australia. There I studied and also taught in a Chabad yeshivah in Melbourne, but all the while I yearned to go and learn overseas.
The idea of going overseas, to some exotic place, really appealed to my young mind. I was sure it would be better than Australia though I realize now that many consider Australia highly exotic. So, I wrote to the Rebbe asking permission to leave, but he didn’t answer my letters even though I wrote several times. Then, my mentor, Rabbi Abba Pliskin, agreed to petition the Rebbe on my behalf. The Rebbe’s answer to him came immediately, and it was quite lengthy.
In brief, the Rebbe was against my leaving Australia. He explained that there is a mitzvah that nobody else can do, of spreading Judaism in Australia, and the proof that this is my mitzvah is that nobody else is doing it. He quoted the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, “If one does charity – material charity and charity in the spiritual sense (meaning giving of his time to teach others), then his mind and heart will become crystallized and refined one-thousand-fold.”
“In other words,” the Rebbe concluded, “the hour that this boy (meaning me) learns in Melbourne, along with teaching others, will bring him as much success as if he had learned one-thousand hours.”
Later on, when I was nineteen, I organized a trip to New York for the High Holidays, so that I could meet the Rebbe. This was a huge undertaking as the cost of such a trip in 1955 was 600 pounds which was equal to a year’s wages for a laborer in those days. I managed to save up some money and I raised the rest.
When I met the Rebbe – the night before Rosh Hashanah – I asked if I could stay in New York, but the Rebbe responded, “You only just arrived. We will discuss it later, when you are ready to return.” So it was already clear to me that I would be going back.
Sure enough, at the end of my trip, the Rebbe said I had to go back, and I had to go now, this night. I protested that there were no flights tonight, but the Rebbe declared, “You can go by train.”
How does one go from the United States to Australia by train? It turned out that the Rebbe wanted me to go to Montreal by train before returning to Australia by the route that I had previously planned, which included stops in London and Paris. In all these places I was to organize a farbrengen and speak words of Torah and explain Chasidic teachings. He also outlined my mission when I returned to Melbourne – I was to establish a number of Chabad groups: Tzeirei Agudas Chabad (the youth organization), Bnos Chabad (the girls’ organization), Nshei Chabad (the women’s organization), etc.
Wed, Feb 14, 2018
I was born in 1950 in Brownsville, which adjoins Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Making ends meet was difficult for my Holocaust survivor parents so from an early age, I started taking on after-school jobs to earn money for items I wanted, like a toy or candy, a bicycle or a suit.
One of my jobs was delivering groceries. I’d take a baby carriage, load it up with an order, and
bring it to the customer’s house. The grocer, Mr. Stillerman, would pay me a quarter, and I also got tips from the customers themselves – ten or twenty cents. Usually, at the end of the week, I’d have five dollars, which was a lot of money in the early 1960s when you could buy a suit for twenty dollars.
One of Mr. Stillerman’s regular customers was Rebbetzin Chana who lived on President Street; she was the Rebbe’s mother.
On one occasion, when I went there, the Rebbe himself opened the door. He looked at me and asked, “What do you have there?” I replied, “I have groceries… from the grocery store.” While I was bringing in the boxes – there were quite a few – I saw that the Rebbe took off his long jacket, his kapote, and began unpacking everything. He had a list of the things his mother had ordered, and after making sure it was all there, he began putting it all away.
When he finished, he gave me a ten-dollar tip. I tell you I was in shock walking out of there. Nobody had ever given me such a large tip before!
When I went back outside, several chasidim were standing there, and they asked me, “Did you get a tip from the Rebbe?” I told them I did. When I showed it to them, one chasid offered, “How about we take this ten, and we give you a twenty for it.”
It was the deal of the century as far as I was concerned. It usually took me a month to earn twenty dollars! I ran home very excited to tell my mother all about it. Immediately we set off for Flamm’s, the clothing store, to buy the suit that I had been eyeing for a long time.
When my father returned from work and saw the suit, he wanted to know who had won the lottery. So I told him about the Rebbe’s tip and what happened afterwards with the chasidim. Needless to say, although not being a Lubavitcher chasid himself, he was not very happy about it.
Two weeks later, my father took me to the Rebbe’s farbrengen. At the end of the holidays, the Rebbe would pour out wine from his cup – it was called kos shel brachah – and we got in line for it. When we reached the front, my father asked the Rebbe, “Do you recognize my son, Avraham Yitzchak?” The Rebbe smiled and responded
The Stock Tip
Thu, Feb 08, 2018
My father, Shlomo Perrin, was a London furrier who came from a family which was close to Lubavitch for generations. One time, while visiting the United States, he came to meet the Rebbe and became his loyal follower, as later did I. The stories I would like to relate here concern the wise advice that the Rebbe gave my father and me over the years in our various business ventures.
In 1956, my father got word that the Shell Oil Company was going to take over another oil company, Canadian Devonian, and when that happened, the shares of the Canadian company would go through the roof.
My father thought this was a sure way of making a fortune and decided to use the proceeds to fund a new Chabad girls’ school. He was so excited about the idea that he was even ready to mortgage his house to buy the Canadian shares. But, before doing anything, he wrote a letter to the Rebbe, asking how much money to invest. The Rebbe replied that he didn’t trust the stock market and recommended that my father have nothing to do with it. The Rebbe explained that a businessman has no control over the fluctuations of stocks and such an investment is very dangerous. But then the Rebbe added, “If you want to learn a lesson, buy just a thousand pounds worth.”
My father decided that he wanted to know what the Rebbe meant by “if you want to learn a lesson” so he bought a thousand pounds worth. And then he followed the Financial Times to see what would happen to his shares.
As it turned out, because of the Suez Crisis of 1956, Shell never bought the Canadian company whose shares started going downhill. In a short time, my father’s thousand-pound investment was worth only two-hundred-and-fifty pounds.
So then, my father asked the Rebbe what to do. The Rebbe said, “Wait until it goes back up to five hundred and sell.” My father did just that. He sold at five hundred – meaning he only lost half of his investment – and after that the bottom fell out of the whole thing.
Another time, a good friend from Cuba came to my father with a very promising business proposition. My father had our accountants look the deal over and they pronounced it excellent, but he would not proceed until the Rebbe gave his blessing. But when he wrote to the Rebbe, the answer came back, “Under no conditions should you have anything to do with this.”
The Jewish Job Description
Thu, Feb 01, 2018
As a college student enrolled at the University of London, I majored in social anthropology. My studies played a major part in sparking my interest to travel to some remote parts of the world – Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and Bali – and become acquainted with their cultures and religions. Slowly I came around to thinking that there must be some kind of universal truth that I should be seeking, and Judaism should not be ruled out. This was repeatedly brought home to me when the natives in those distant places asked me about my religion and I wouldn’t know how to answer.
In 1971, after returning from Indonesia, I confided my dilemma to a good friend of mine from Manchester who suggested that if I wanted to explore Judaism, then Chabad-Lubavitch would be a good place to start. “They are more cheerful than the rest,” he quipped.
I followed his advice and ended up enrolling in a Chabad yeshivah in Kfar Chabad, Israel. There I found many spiritual seekers like me, all interested in learning about the Jewish mystical tradition.
After a year of very enriching and inspiring studies, I still had a few concerns. One was that, being an independent person, I was worried that becoming a Chabad chasid meant abandoning my individuality. It seemed as if Chabad-Lubavitch people were very dependent on the Rebbe, and I was not sure that I could easily submit to the Rebbe’s directives.
The only way to resolve my doubts was to go and meet the Rebbe, which I did at Passover time in 1974. The procedure in those days was – in advance of the audience, to write a letter to the Rebbe outlining one’s concerns and requests, and hand it in to the Rebbe’s office. So this I did – I wrote a letter five or six pages long, explaining my background and listing my questions.
I recall walking into the Rebbe’s office – which seemed huge to me at the time – and seeing the Rebbe seated at his desk. Although I walked in feeling quite nervous, I immediately relaxed because the Rebbe had a warm fatherly air about him, and yet, at the same time, I felt that I was in the presence of somebody very great.
He immediately took out my long letter and began answering my questions.
One of these was how much sleep I should get per night. It might seem like a trivial question but it was important to me because I wanted precise advice how to allocate my time.
Building the Holy Land
Wed, Jan 24, 2018
In 1987 – about three years after I had been elected mayor of Ariel, Israel – I visited New York, and I had the privilege of meeting the Rebbe for the first time.
I vividly recall that it was Sunday when the Rebbe was giving away dollars for charity and thousands of people were standing in line. Yet, when I reached the Rebbe, he stopped to talk to me for a few minutes. He was very friendly and, when he smiled, there was a light on his face and his amazing blue eyes were shining.
Some ten months before this I had sent him a letter in which I raised various issues that concerned me in Israel. But when I stood before the Rebbe, I had forgotten all about it. His secretary, Rabbi Leibel Groner, introduced me as the mayor of Ariel, the capital of Samaria, and immediately the Rebbe said, “Yes, I read what you wrote.”
I had forgotten my own letter but he remembered it – a letter from ten months before – among thousands of letters he received since then!
I was so embarrassed that the blood just drained from my face. But he acted as if nothing had happened; he just proceeded to address the issues that I had raised in that letter, while I stood there like a child in front of a genius.
Then he asked me how things were coming along in Ariel, and I said that there was a lot of American pressure to give up control over the territories to the Arabs. To this the Rebbe said, “Be strong. Don’t give up even a piece of land. You need to keep the Land of Israel for the people of Israel. That is your role. You have to be strong and you have to build more.”
I took that opportunity to present him with an aerial photo of Ariel, and I showed him where we would like to build. He said, “You have to remember, that Ariel is also another name for the Temple, and with that name you have a special responsibility.”
During that meeting I also said to him that I had brought regards of three thousand children of Ariel, but instead of thanking me, he said, “I’m not satisfied.”
I was taken aback. All I could do is ask, “What do you mean?”
He said, “It should be six thousand children.” And again he said, “You have to build more.”
Up to that point, we had been speaking Hebrew, but suddenly he asked me, “Do you speak Yiddish?” When I answered that I understand a little Yiddish, he told me that our activities should be “Arayngechapt!”
I didn’t know what he meant so Rabbi Groner chimed in to explain that arayngechapt means “catch it all.”
The Black Belt with the Black Hat
Wed, Jan 17, 2018
I was born Philip Jacobs, although I was better known as “Flip Jacobs” in the predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up. But in 1967 – when I was 11 – we moved to South Royalton, Vermont, a hamlet with a population of only 900, where we were the only Jews in town. There was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism brewing there, and I got a bitter taste of it when I started school.
The school administration could not prevent the beatings I was routinely subjected to on and off school property, and it became painfully clear that I had to learn to defend myself. So my parents signed me up for karate classes with a South Korean master. From the beginning, I trained intensely – five hours a day, every day of the week. I got my black belt at age 18, and won many regional tournaments including the 1976 YMCA East Coast Black Belt Heavy Weight title. I spent my high school and college years training and competing in karate with the plan to eventually fight in the Olympics.
While I was attending the University of Vermont, I met Rabbi Shmuel Hecht, the Chabad emissary there, who immediately invited me to his house for Shabbos dinner and repeated that invitation every week. He called me Fishel, which nobody called me before. He would say, “Fishel, the Rebbetzin made great food for you, she made chicken wings for you…” How could I refuse? After a while, he also invited me to the synagogue on Saturday morning. So I started going there as well.
I graduated college in 1979 when, with Rabbi Hecht’s encouragement, I enrolled in the Hadar HaTorah yeshivah in Crown Heights. Of course, being so close to Chabad Headquarters, I saw the Rebbe every day when he came to pray Minchah. And I made of point of standing near him. I recall the Rebbe looking at me – straight into my eyes – and I believe that he must have been reading my soul.