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!
My Mind and My Father’s Heart
Thu, Aug 22, 2019
My father was a descendant of the Gerrer chasidic dynasty of Poland, in a direct line from the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Rottenberg. Unfortunately, he was not able to stay in Poland with his people. When he was drafted into the Polish army, he had to run – he escaped to Germany where he married my mother. I was born in Germany in 1930, but after the Nazis came to power – before the start of World War Two and the Holocaust – my parents managed to immigrate to Israel.
That is where I grew up and was educated. Shortly after I got married, my wife and I were offered teaching positions in Brazil, and in the summer of 1956, we moved to Sao Paulo. But things didn’t turn out as we expected. Because of the problems we encountered, I turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for advice, and thus began my ongoing correspondence with him – centered mostly on educational issues and challenges.
After a year, we decided to return to Israel. On the return trip, we stopped in New York to visit my grandmother, and I used this opportunity to meet the Rebbe.
During that audience, we spoke about Brazil and my work there. I also confided in him an idea I had been mulling over of staying and teaching in New York for a bit. Initially, the Rebbe objected, “Is there a lack of teachers here? In Brazil they need teachers more than in New York.” But when I explained that I already found someone to take my place in Brazil, the Rebbe didn’t press me further.
That’s how it happened that we stayed in New York for two years (1957-1958), during which time I taught at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe in Brooklyn. At the end of each school year, I brought my class for an audience with the Rebbe, and the Rebbe delivered a short talk to the boys. In general, throughout those two years I was privileged to have a close connection with the Rebbe, and I would like to share one anecdote that stands out in my memory.
One day, I received a letter from my brother in Israel that my father had suffered a heart attack and that his condition is critical. Although nowadays it is hard to understand this, back then transcontinental telephone calls were rare because of the high cost, so the most common method of communication was by letter, which would take approximately a week to reach the US from Israel. I made the calculation that the letter, which arrived on Thursday, was probably sent on Sunday, meaning that almost a week had passed since the incident, and I was very worried about what might have happened since.
The Day I Got Over It
Wed, Aug 14, 2019
In our work to record the testimony of individuals’ experiences with the Rebbe, we often encounter those who tell us that their encounter was so personal and so private that it cannot be shared.
While we always try to persuade them that it is exactly such personal stories that are incredibly relevant, too many decide to keep their stories to themselves.
We are especially thankful to Mrs. A. for sharing her story with us. Though it was difficult for her to relive this part of her life, she graciously agreed to do so on the condition that her identity not be revealed.
We hope that others who have withheld their stories thus far will be encouraged to emulate her example.
One beautiful sunny day not too long ago, I was taking a ride with a friend of mine – a single woman in her thirties – when, for a reason that I cannot explain, I decided to share with her a very personal story from my life involving the Rebbe, a story which I have not told to others. When I finished talking, she pulled the car over, put her head in her hands and started to sob.
When she calmed down a bit, she asked me, “Why did you decide to tell me this particular story now?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was just moved to speak.”
“You have no idea what you just did for me,” she continued. “My situation is very similar to what yours had been. I, too, have been carrying angry feelings for a long time, and I think this is what has prevented me from getting married until now. Hearing what the Rebbe told you has helped me immeasurably.”
Spare the Rod; Love the Child
Fri, Aug 09, 2019
When the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, visited the Holy Land in 1929, he concluded his trip in Jerusalem, where he received visitors who wanted a blessing from him. My father, who came from a Hungarian chasidic family but had no links to Lubavitch, decided nonetheless to take this opportunity to meet the Rebbe.
“What do you need?” the Rebbe asked him.
My father was already married with children and he wasn’t lacking money, so half-joking, he told the Rebbe: “That my children should be your chasidim.”
“Amen,” the Rebbe responded.
His blessing was indeed fulfilled – today all of my father’s descendants are Chabad chasidim.
I myself studied in Chabad yeshivahs in Jerusalem and, after graduating, worked for a few years as a school counselor at an educational institution for child Holocaust survivors.
Then, a terrible tragedy struck the community of Kfar Chabad. On April 11, 1956, terrorists attacked the village and murdered five students and their teacher while they prayed at Beit Sefer Lemelacha – the trade school catering mostly to the children of new immigrants to Israel. In the aftermath of that terror attack and the painful impression it made on the students, I was asked to come and help the students deal with the trauma they had experienced. I ended up staying on as a school counselor and teacher for many years.
Throughout those years I was in contact – mostly by letter – with the Rebbe who, in 1951, had taken over the leadership of Chabad after the passing of the Previous Rebbe. He constantly showed great interest in every aspect of my work, even inquiring how each particular child was doing. As much as I tried to supply the details, the Rebbe always asked me for more.
Faith as a Foundation
Wed, Jul 31, 2019
I first met the Rebbe in the early years of his leadership of Chabad Lubavitch. It was 1956, and I had been sent from Israel to serve as emissary of the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement in the United States. When a friend invited me to a farbrengen at 770 Eastern Parkway, I went and was most impressed by the event, especially by the Rebbe who spent many hours speaking words of Torah and leading the singing of Chassidic melodies.
Later in the winter of that same year, I was privileged to meet the Rebbe in a private audience. When I arrived at the appointed time, which was very late at night, I was surprised to see such a long line of people waiting to see him, and I wondered: If the Rebbe is busy running Chabad during the day and then meets with people during the night, when does he sleep?
The main topic of our conversation concerned Jewish education. I explained to the Rebbe what my responsibilities as a Bnei Akiva emissary entailed, and I told him that, unlike in formal educational frameworks where the students sit day after day imbibing Torah knowledge, the members of a youth movement only get together on the weekends and just for a few hours. Therefore, we focus on what’s most important – communicating to them the key concepts of faith.
The Rebbe’s responded that, in his opinion, in all types of educational frameworks the main emphasis should be on these essential topics.
I have to say that his message – that the focal point of education needs to be instilling faith and awe of G-d and not just imparting knowledge – is a message that has stayed with me to this day.
We also discussed the mixing of genders at Bnei Akiva gatherings. The Rebbe had grave reservations about this. He said that we had to be aware that such a policy was a disaster. But he added that our programs were preventing an even greater disaster since we were bringing young people closer to Torah. He felt that, under the circumstances, this outcome counterbalanced the danger.
The Pivotal Kodak Moment
Wed, Jul 24, 2019
Growing up, I was a rambunctious child. I was impatient and had a penchant for sparring with authority, regularly testing my teachers in the Chabad yeshivah I attended. In their perceived wisdom, they treated me with “applied psychology,” which was sometimes applied to my personality and sometimes to parts of my anatomy. In another words, they did what they thought they needed to do to keep me out of trouble.
But get in trouble I still did as when I decided, at age eleven, to take a picture of the Rebbe.
In those days – I am speaking about 1958 here – there were few candid photos of the Rebbe because he would frown at picture-taking of him; the only ones available were shots taken by Trainer Studios of the Rebbe officiating at weddings. But I was determined to get my own with my Kodak Instamatic camera.
After one wedding, I waited for him as he came up the staircase to his office. When he emerged, I snapped my photo, setting off the flash which seemed to startle him, and hastily entered the adjacent study hall, pleased with my success.
But the Rebbe cared too much to let this go. Instead of going to his office, he turned in the other direction, following me into the study hall. Suddenly I found the Rebbe looking straight at me with the evidence – my camera – dangling around my neck.
“Who is your teacher?” the Rebbe asked me in Yiddish. When I gave the name, he continued, “Is your teacher pleased with you?” I thought he was, but I didn’t how to say it without sounding pompous, so I just shrugged and said nothing.
“Dein gantzeh Chasidus bashteit in photographia? – Does being a chasid consist just of photography for you?” the Rebbe challenged me.
I didn’t know how to respond to that either, so again I said nothing. At that point, my principal, Rabbi Mendel Tenenbaum, must have spotted that I was in trouble since he appeared out of the blue. “Test him,” the Rebbe instructed Rabbi Tenenbaum, “if he passes, fine, but if not, take away the apparatus.”
Make Judaism Your Business
Wed, Jul 17, 2019
I was born in Melbourne to Holocaust survivors from Poland who arrived in Australia in 1949. My father had been brought up in a chasidic home – his family being followers of the Rebbe of Radomsk – but that chasidic group was decimated during the war, and the survivors did not come to Australia.
Because of his chasidic roots, my father gravitated to Chabad and became very friendly, among others, with Rabbi Zalman Serebryanski, the founder of Yeshivah Gedolah, the Rabbinical College of Australia and New Zealand, as well as with Rabbi Yitzchok Groner, director of Chabad institutions in Australia. Rabbi Groner – whose brother, Rabbi Leibel Groner, was one of the Rebbe’s secretaries – arranged for my parents to have a private audience with the Rebbe in 1970.
My mother did not have a chasidic background so, before the audience, my father explained to her how one should behave in front of the Rebbe, telling her that they shouldn’t sit down and that they shouldn’t speak until spoken to.
When they walked into the Rebbe’s study, the Rebbe invited my mother to take a seat. Having taken my father’s instructions to heart, she remained standing. The Rebbe asked her a second time, but still she wouldn’t sit. Finally, the Rebbe said, “Either you will sit or I will need to stand.” At that point, of course, my mother gave in.
One of the topics my father mentioned to the Rebbe was his recent purchase of a property in Israel, near the Radomsk yeshivah outside of Tel Aviv. My father was surprised when the Rebbe took great interest in this yeshivah, proceeding to elicit every single detail about it. He wanted to know exactly who learned there, who taught there, what was being studied there, etc.
Another topic that came up was my future. My older brother Laibl had gone to university and received a law degree, but then went to work as a director of a Hillel House on campus. (He is presently a well-known teacher of Kabbalah.) My parents were very interested in my attending university also, but the Rebbe told them, “Just as your son Laibl didn’t end up doing what he had studied in university, a very large percentage of people who attend and graduate don’t end up doing what they had initially planned.”
Don’t Stop Now
Wed, Jul 10, 2019
When I was seventeen, the Nazis invaded Poland. After several years, they herded all the Jews of my hometown, Radom, into a ghetto. From there, little by little, most were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp where they were murdered in the gas chambers. My family was among them. I myself was sent to a labor camp from which I managed to escape in 1944, and ever since then, it has been my goal in life to bring the Nazis to justice.
At the outset, I had no idea that I would spend my whole life doing this. I only wanted to devote one year to capturing the SS officers responsible for the Radom ghetto. And I succeeded in this quest. One of the officers, Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Blum, was arrested, tried, and hanged. Additionally, we caught two dozen of his accomplices; they were all tried and they served lengthy sentences.
After one year of this work in Poland, I immigrated to Israel – this was in 1946, two years before the State of Israel was founded. There, I worked covertly with the Haganah. In an operation that lasted seven years, we succeeded in orchestrating the arrests of some 250 Nazi criminals, several of whom were sent to Siberia. We were also instrumental in helping the Israeli government capture Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect of the “Final Solution.”
So what started as a one-year commitment ended up being a twenty-year endeavor, all without a salary. No one was interested in paying me for this work. In fact, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wanted me to stop chasing Nazi criminals altogether. He feared that if we kept at it, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower would curtail foreign aid to Israel. But I protested that the work was not finished and we needed to hunt them down. So I kept at it.
But there came a time in the 1970s when even my wife felt I had to stop. She was an ophthalmologist, the chief breadwinner and the chief financial supporter of my work, but even she thought that I had done enough. At first I was reluctant, but finally I told her, “I will go to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York. I will describe the situation to him and hear what he has to say. If he can’t suggest another way for me to fund my work, I’ll stop and go into business.”
Getting Judaism Through Airport Security
Thu, Jul 04, 2019
In 1972, I began to serve as El Al’s chief security officer at JFK airport in New York. Later that year, I was approached by Chabad representatives who asked for permission to set up a counter in the corner of our terminal. Their leader, Rabbi Kuty Rapp, explained that they wanted to be of service to Jewish travelers on their way to Israel.
I consulted with the manager of El Al’s New York operations, Danny Kasten, who agreed, and permission was granted. Thereafter, Rabbi Kuty and his contingent would arrive every day to help travelers don tefillin, distribute Shabbat candles, and give out reading material. They did all this with such kindness and warmth that most non-religious travelers reacted positively to them and enjoyed the experience.
As Passover of 1973 approached, Rabbi Kuty asked me if there was a way to send matzot from the Rebbe to Chabad chasidim in Israel. I again consulted with Danny Kasten, and we decided to send the matzot in a first class container, because first class luggage gets unloaded first at the airport. When the matzot landed in Israel, the chasidim came to pick them up from the ground personnel. And, from that time on, it became a regular event, with a shipment of the Rebbe’s matzot flown before every Passover to Israel.
Rabbi Kuty reported to the Rebbe what we had done, and the Rebbe requested to meet with us to thank us for our assistance. We eagerly accepted the offer of an audience with the Rebbe which took place in the Hebrew month of Tammuz, 1974.
Danny and I were admitted into the Rebbe’s office at around 2 a.m. and were greeted warmly. The Rebbe shook our hands and invited us to sit down; the conversation then proceeded in Hebrew.
After thanking us for our assistance with Chabad activities at the airport, the Rebbe began to ask us about our jobs. I spoke about the serious challenges those of us working in security face, dealing with the constant threat of hijackers and bombs, and I explained our security protocols and inspections procedures. The Rebbe listened with great curiosity and asked me pointed questions which showed that he was familiar with the details of our work.
Wed, Jun 26, 2019
In my youth I had shown a strong talent for drawing, but, as a yeshivah student, I never had the opportunity to be exposed to the world of art. In fact, art was anathema in my eyes. This seemed to be the prevailing view in the schools where I studied – the Ponevezh yeshivah in Bnei Brak and the Chevron yeshivah in Jerusalem, where I also received rabbinic ordination.
But then I happened to be in Canada during a big art exhibition, and I saw amazing artwork there that fascinated me. And I asked myself: “Why don’t we utilize the incredible power of art for good? Why don’t those whom G-d has blessed with this talent use it for holiness?”
I spoke about this with several rabbis and learned that, according to the great sages of our generation, there is nothing wrong with art, as long as it stays within the boundaries of Jewish law, halachah. (That is, as long as it is not lewd or crude, does not attempt to represent G-d in physical form, or violate the commandment against making graven images.)
As a result, I decided to try to explain what I learned from the Torah in the symbolic language of drawing and painting, while being careful to stay within the halachic framework. And this is how I began to develop my style which gave new meaning to the notion of “Jewish art” as opposed to “Judaica.” I aimed not just to use Jewish motifs and symbols in decorative fashion but to convey emotion and a deep message in the Torah themes I drew.
The big challenge in painting Torah ideas is that the Torah is essentially spiritual, and every verse contains infinite depths of G-dly wisdom. The concern is that trying to convey this through painting might reduce the deep spirituality to something shallow or banal. Therefore, in my paintings, I attempted to express the same conceptual depth that is embedded in the verses without resorting to a purely historical scene.
Thu, Jun 20, 2019
In the late 1950s, at a time when the Iron Curtain was almost impenetrable, I served as the first secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Moscow. While officially I was playing a diplomatic role, I was actually tasked by the Israeli government with creating a link with the Jews trapped in the USSR.
During those harsh times, I and my colleagues at the embassy tried to contact Jews throughout the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union, meeting primarily in synagogues – wherever they existed – as well as in safe houses maintained by the Chabad underground. We realized, of course, that we were taking huge risks with our own safety and with the safety of those whom we met, because at that time the practice of Judaism was considered a nationalistic activity and therefore an act of rebellion against the Communist regime. Even to possess a Hebrew Bible or a Jewish prayer book was viewed as anti-Soviet. Why anti-Soviet? Because the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish prayer book both speak about the yearning for Zion. To yearn for Zion was to deny that the Communist state was a paradise on earth.
We, the Zionists of the Israeli Embassy, were indeed guilty of this crime. We did want the Jews of the USSR to identify with the Jewish nation. We did want these oppressed people to awaken to their right as Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. And we knew that our work was illegal from the Soviet perspective. Still, even though it was dangerous, we persevered. We distributed thousands of miniature Jewish prayer books and miniature Hebrew bibles – so as to make them easier to hide – as well as other religious and non-religious articles, such as Jewish newspapers and calendars.