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!
It’s Not About Politics
Fri, Jan 18, 2019
During the years that Rabbi Betzalel Zolty served as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, I headed his office. I joined him on a visit to the United States in December of 1981, when he was honored at a fundraising dinner on behalf of institutions of the Ger chasidim.
During that trip, Rabbi Zolty planned to meet a few important rabbis, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading halachic authority in America, Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, the head of the rabbinic school of Yeshiva University, the Klausenberger Rebbe and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In those years however, it was hard to obtain an appointment with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as he was no longer meeting people as much as he had in the past, but I managed to arrange it.
When we came into the Rebbe’s office, the first thing that struck me was the simplicity of the room. The Rebbe stood up as we entered, walked around his desk and came right up to the door to greet Rabbi Zolty. He shook his hand warmly and invited him to sit down. After the initial greetings, an animated Torah discussion began between the two.
The first topic that Rabbi Zolty brought up was his concern that too few yeshivah graduates were interested in taking up positions in the rabbinate. This matter disturbed him greatly, and he would talk about it wherever he went. He believed it was important that, when in
Divine Change of Plans
Wed, Jan 09, 2019
My involvement with Chabad started in 1974 while I was a student at the University of Michigan. One day, as I was walking through campus, a bearded man wearing a black hat approached me and asked, “Pardon me, are you Jewish?” When I answered in the affirmative, he invited me to Yom Kippur services.
This man was Rabbi Aharon Goldstein, the director of the Chabad House in Ann Arbor, and I went on to study Torah with him over the next couple of years, becoming more religiously involved. However, I was still undecided whether becoming fully Torah observant was for me. Additionally, I was fluctuating between two worlds – academia and business – uncertain whether to pursue a degree in psychology or follow one of my other talents and interests, the chief of which was cooking (a true passion of mine).
While in the midst of this confusion, I decided to write to the Rebbe, asking several questions about life. In his response, he began “May G-d grant you the fulfillment of your heart’s desires for good.” I took that to mean that what is important in making a decision such as this is following what feels right in one’s heart. The Rebbe encouraged me further by mentioning the assurance of Talmudic sages, “seek and you shall find,” which means that success requires effort but, as I discovered, even a little effort can go a long way.
In his inimitable way, the Rebbe was able to get me to focus on what I really wanted to do. And at that time, I expressed myself best through cooking,
The Gift of Speech
Wed, Jan 02, 2019
Although we were a Modern Orthodox family, in 1954, shortly before I turned sixteen, my father enrolled me in the Chabad yeshivah in New York. As was the custom in the yeshivah, on the day of my birthday, I was sent to receive a blessing from the Rebbe. This was only a short while after I had joined the yeshivah, and I had never met the Rebbe before.
As I was about to enter his office, I was told that this day – the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan – was also the Rebbe’s birthday. So when I walked in, I put my hand out and said, “Happy birthday, Rebbe!”
I didn’t know how one was supposed to act in front of the Rebbe. I didn’t know anything – I hardly knew who the Rebbe was! It was only later that I learned more about him.
In that meeting, the Rebbe spoke to me as an equal. I was just a teenager who knew nothing, but he spoke to me like a friend, and I felt very comfortable with him. We talked for about a half hour and, during that time, we discussed many issues. I told him about my life and about my problems. At the end he said that he would like to help me.
In those days, I stuttered terribly. The only time I didn’t stutter was when I was singing. But I didn’t believe that there was a cure for my condition, so I said, “You can’t help me.”
Speaking Their Language
Wed, Dec 26, 2018
My father, Rabbi Yosef Rachamim, immigrated to Israel from Morocco in the year 1911, settling in the Old City of Jerusalem, where I was born in 1937. Despite the great poverty and the difficult security situation at the time, my parents insisted that my brothers and I devote ourselves to the study of Torah. I was sent to the Novardok yeshivah in Hadera, where I remained for five years, until 1952, when my brother Meir influenced me to transfer to the Chabad yeshivah in Lod.
I was received warmly at the Chabad yeshivah, even though I had come from a very different background than most of the other students. They were primarily the sons of Chabad families from Russia, while I had come from a Sephardic family with roots in Morocco, and then had studied in a Lithuanian yeshivah, which was generally opposed to chasidic ways. Those who came from the Lithuanian yeshivah background questioned how could a fifteen-year-old boy like me delve into the deep chasidic teachings which are steeped in Kabbalah. Their questions disturbed me, but when I asked my teachers, they advised that it would be best if I wrote to the Rebbe about this.
And thus began my extensive correspondence with the Rebbe. This was just a few years after the Rebbe began his leadership of Chabad, and he used to answer all my letters at length.
But even later on, when he became very busy, the Rebbe always noticed if a long time passed between my letters to him. In subsequent years, there was a period that I didn’t receive any reply from him so, in order not to burden him, I decided to stop writing. Therefore, I was astonished to receive
Thu, Dec 20, 2018
Since 1970, I had been working for the radio station Kol Israel, editing and broadcasting music programs, but after nine years on the job I was not sure that I still wanted to continue. I was then at the beginning of my journey toward becoming Torah observant, and I was being encouraged to enter yeshivah in order to make up the knowledge that I lacked. In addition, I was beginning to doubt whether radio was the proper place for me as an observant Jew.
When the occasion arose in September of 1979 to travel to New York and meet the Rebbe, I decided to seek his advice on this issue.
The Rebbe’s answer surprised me. He said that I should continue working at the radio station. In retrospect, I understand why. A Torah observant person serves as a living example to those with whom he works, and automatically – whether he wants to or not – he is affecting his surroundings. And his influence is greater than if he were to withdraw from the secular world and seclude himself in yeshivah.
To the best of my knowledge, this was the Rebbe’s general approach. He counseled newcomers to Torah observance not to flee the scene, but rather to strengthen Judaism in their natural environment. It worked for me. I witnessed more and more Jews at Kol Israel coming closer to their Jewish roots as a result of my example.
During my audience, the Rebbe also spoke with me about the best uses for one’s G-d-given talents. If someone has a certain talent, no matter what is his field of endeavor, he must use it to spread Torah. If he does not do so, he is harming creation. Why? Because G-d entrusted him to utilize his talents and strengths to do good in this world.
In order to emphasize this, the Rebbe cited the Talmudic story of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, who made it a point of honoring rich people. Why did Rabbi Yehudah do this? The Rebbe explained that “rich” doesn’t necessarily mean in silver and gold, but rather in talents and character traits. If people used these for spreading Torah, especially at the time of great hardship for the Jewish nation suffering under Roman occupation, they were worthy of Rabbi Yehudah’s honor.
What about the Chinese?
Wed, Dec 12, 2018
I was born and raised in Brooklyn where I was educated in the public school system and attended City College, receiving a degree in civil engineering in 1965. After graduating, I served for two years in the U.S. Public Health Service, which allowed me to fulfill my military obligation and left me free to do anything I wanted.
I then traveled to Israel, where I worked on kibbutzim and also learned in a yeshivah in Kfar Chabad. When I returned home to Brooklyn, I continued my studies at Hadar Hatorah, a Chabad yeshivah for Jews returning to Judaism.
During this time, I had an audience with the Rebbe – in December of 1970, on the occasion of my 28th birthday. In advance of that audience, I wrote the Rebbe a long letter, expressing my ambivalence about committing to the life of an Orthodox Jew. In my letter I also stated that I didn’t feel ready to marry as that would obviously commit me to a particular lifestyle.
The Rebbe welcomed me warmly and began the conversation by asking me about myself. After answering a number of his questions, I mentioned that I had written about these things in my letter. In the letter, I had questioned whether Judaism represented the truth. In response, the Rebbe told me that the Jewish people were the only people in the world who have survived from antiquity until now. I had heard this explanation previously and, as he Rebbe was talking, I thought, “What about the Chinese?” I really wanted to ask him about this but I didn’t have the chutzpah to interrupt him.
Wed, Dec 05, 2018
I first became involved with Chabad as a teenager in the early 1950s, when I went to work as a counselor at the Beth Jacob Day Camp in Philadelphia, the director of which was a Chabad chasid, Rabbi Aaron Popack. Several years later, I had to make a decision whether to accept a position teaching in an after-school Jewish studies program in a Conservative synagogue or in an Orthodox one, and Rabbi Popack was the person who suggested I solicit the Rebbe’s advice.
So I wrote to the Rebbe, and his response to my letter was most surprising and impressive. Rather than advising me to teach in the Orthodox after-school program, which would hire a Torah observant teacher in any case, he said that if the Conservative synagogue was willing to hire me and allow me to set my own teaching agenda, then that’s the position I should accept. He said that I would see a lot of results and satisfaction from my work with the students there. I followed his advice and went on to teach in after-school programs of Conservative synagogues for almost fifty years. Over the years, I saw how right the Rebbe was – many of the families whose children were my students, began to keep more mitzvahs as a result of my influence on their children and the children’s influence on the parents.
In December of 1959 I got to meet the Rebbe in person, when my wife and I came to ask him for a blessing before our marriage. It was a very short audience, and I recall that we were very nervous. In addition to giving us his blessing, the Rebbe also advised me to recite Psalms before starting my workday.
Wed, Nov 28, 2018
About a year after my family and I moved to the development town of Migdal HaEmek, I ran for head of the local council as part of the center-left Mapai party. I was only twenty-five years old at the time, but I won the election, serving as the head of the council for the next eighteen years – from 1959 until 1977.
During that time, the situation in the town was very difficult. Migdal HaEmek had been founded in 1953 as part of an initiative to build development towns in Israel for the purpose of settling immigrants flocking to the new state. As such, Migdal HaEmek absorbed immigrants from thirty-two different countries, but there wasn’t enough employment for all the people that came. Therefore, my efforts were directed toward developing employment opportunities as well as education venues.
My efforts in education were greatly aided by Rabbi Yitzchak Grossman who came to Migdal HaEmek in 1964 and with whom I forged a strong bond. He established the Migdal Ohr institutions, where thousands of children and youth are educated today, many from troubled homes around the country.
Love is the Real Bottom Line
Wed, Nov 21, 2018
I was born in 1925 in Belarus to a Chabad family – in fact, my father had come from Yekaterinoslav, the town where the Rebbe’s father served as rabbi and where the Rebbe lived as a boy.
When I say the Rebbe, I am speaking about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. But during my youth, “the Rebbe” meant the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn who, in 1927, sent our family to Hebron, Israel, where my father went to work as a specialized kosher butcher in charge of deveining.
In August of 1929, the Previous Rebbe visited Jerusalem and, naturally, my father was thrilled to go there to greet him. After a meaningful audience, he asked the Rebbe to bless him that “m’zol zach vider zehn – we should meet again” – and the Rebbe did as he asked.
Upon leaving, my father realized that he had left something behind, so he went back in to get it and, of course, saw the Rebbe again. Realizing this, he asked the Rebbe for a second time to bless him that they should meet again. But the Rebbe declined. Instead, he said, “we are seeing each other now.” My father repeated his request a third time, but the Rebbe declined once more.
Our Man in Texas
Wed, Nov 14, 2018
I come from a Lubavitch family going back to my great, great-grandfather who was a disciple of the Mitteler Rebbe, the second Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. In 1930, during the persecution of Jewish leaders by the Soviets, my grandfather and namesake, who was the Rabbi of Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), was arrested. He was sent to a gulag in Siberia from which he returned three years later a broken man, and he died in 1933 in Leningrad. I never knew him, and I also never knew my father who was killed during World War Two when my mother was pregnant with me.
After the war, we made it out of Russia via France about the same time as the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana. The Rebbe (before he became the Rebbe) came to Paris to escort her to America, and I recall dancing with the Rebbe as a five-year-old kid, along with the other Russian chasidim.
My mother and I did not go to America however. First, we went to Israel and only years later, in 1958, did we come to America and I enrolled in the Chabad yeshivah in New York.
From the time I started learning in the yeshivah, my relationship with the Rebbe was that of a child to a father or grandfather. Whatever he told me to do, I did. For example, just four years after I arrived in New York, he sent me back to France to study at the Chabad yeshivah in Brunoy, France, in anticipation of a big immigration there of Moroccan youth. The Rebbe knew that they would need a lot of encouragement, so he sent me and five others to accomplish this mission.