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!
From Paralyzed to Mobilized
Wed, Nov 15, 2017
I was born in India to a Persian family. But when I was two, we moved to England, where I was educated and lived until age eighteen – that’s when I got married and moved to Italy. And it was there that I was introduced to Chabad.
My connection with the Rebbe begins in 1977, when my husband, Benyamin, took ill.
He had been travelling to the Far East on business and, when he returned to Milan, I noticed that he wasn’t well. At first, he insisted that nothing was wrong until one morning he woke up paralyzed from head to toe. I took him to the hospital where they kept him for a whole month, and he still couldn’t move – he couldn’t even chew. He could only swallow soup, which I would have to bring to him daily.
The doctors didn’t know what was wrong, and they kept doing tests and telling me, “Signora, until we find out what’s wrong, we cannot help him.”
I was beside myself with worry, and I confided in Rabbi Moshe Lazar, who was the Rebbe’s emissary in Milan. He asked very gently, “Would you like a blessing for Benyamin from the Lubavitcher Rebbe?”
I’m ashamed to say now that I thought then, “How can a man in New York help my husband here in Milan?” But I figured what harm can it do? So, I gave his Hebrew name “Benyamin ben Esther.” I certainly didn’t expect anything to happen.
The next day, I walked into the hospital with my pot of soup and almost dropped the whole thing on the floor, because there was my husband walking towards me – no longer paralyzed, not in need of crutches, just walking normally!
A Nuclear Response
Thu, Nov 09, 2017
I am a descendent of an illustrious rabbinic family, and the son of a rabbi who served the South African Jewish community for most of his life. So it was clear to me from an early age that I, too, would become a rabbi. I was educated at the Gateshead Yeshivah in England, and also at Kfar Chassidim and Mir Yeshivah in Israel, where I received my rabbinic ordination.
However, as soon as I entered the rabbinate of South Africa, I became concerned about retaining my intellectual independence – something I am fiercely protective of – while serving as a community rabbi at the will of a synagogue’s board of directors. Therefore, I believed that I also needed to secure an independent source of income. And so I first went to work for an international commodities trading company, and later I founded the leadership consulting firm that I currently lead.
At about that time, an opportunity arose to join a company of commodity traders in Johannesburg, and this is what I did, as well as establishing a Torah study academy known as Beis Hamedrash Kesser Torah. This Torah academy along with Chabad and Kolel Yad Shaul became involved in the South African Baal Teshuva Movement – the movement for young people to return to their Jewish roots and Torah observance.
Yiddishkeit is Not Difficult
Thu, Nov 02, 2017
Although I received a religious education as a child, I pursued secular studies in university, and it was not until I got married that I became seriously interested in Judaism. After a time, my wife and I moved to Stamford Hill, which is the Chassidic neighborhood of London, even though we were not Chassidic then. In fact, both of us were involved in academia – she as a lecturer in psychology, and I as a Ph.D. candidate in Jewish history and Hebrew literature.
Then, in 1968, while at University College London, I became acquainted with Rabbi Shmuel Lew, the emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who had just been appointed student counselor. He found me a study partner for my Talmudic studies, and he introduced me to Chassidic teachings.
The first time I met the Rebbe was in 1973, when I came to spend a month in New York. I had written a long letter to the Rebbe in which I asked his advice regarding my future: Should I continue with my studies at University College and finish my doctorate? Or, should I transfer to Jews College (now London School of Jewish Studies) and get rabbinic ordination? Or, should I go into business?
When the Rebbe read my letter, he answered: “You should finish your doctorate.”
“But there is so much ‘apikorsut’ (heresy) that I have to read and write about,” I protested.
At that the Rebbe said, “You should write all the footnotes you need. And then” he added with a big smile, “you should do Teshuvah.”
The Rebbe also warned me not to get involved in comparative religion. He said that Jewish thought or Chassidic thought should not be compared with any other philosophy. And later I realized the wisdom of that.
The Down to Earth Blessing
Wed, Oct 25, 2017
I was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I attended the local Chabad day school and, therefore, I got a good grounding in Chassidic teachings as a child.
When I reached Bar Mitzvah age, one of my teachers, Rabbi Velvel Konikov, took me to see the Rebbe, and it was an experience I will never forget. I remember the Rebbe asking me if I received his letter of blessings for the occasion. I replied that I hadn’t. He immediately made a note to make sure that it should be sent out a second time, and then he gave me a most beautiful blessing.
When I returned to Worcester, I resolved to be a chasid of the Rebbe. This was in 1967, at the time of the Six Day War, just after the Rebbe had launched his tefillin campaign urging every Jew to put on tefillin in order to win added merit for the security of Israel.
It was not an easy thing to do – to go out in the street, walk up to total strangers and ask them to put on tefillin. But the Rebbe said to do it, so I did.
The day after I did it, Rabbi Hershel Fogelman, the dean of my school, called me in and asked, “Did you go out on the tefillin campaign yesterday?” I said that I did, and I told him where I had gone – a suburban neighborhood where I knocked on many doors.
“Do you know whose house you went to?!” he responded. “The Mayor of Worcester! And he was so excited that you gave him a chance to put on tefillin.”
The Rabbi and his Guide
Wed, Oct 18, 2017
I’ve heard that the Rebbe had many operatives outside of card-carrying Lubavitchers and his official emissaries. In fact, I now know that my father was one of them.
My father, Rabbi Charles Batt, grew up in the early 1900s in Connecticut, where he was educated at the New Haven Yeshivah. Subsequently, he received rabbinic ordination in Cleveland from Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, who later became the rosh yeshivah of the Ner Yisrael Yeshivah in Baltimore.
In 1933, my father married my mother and they settled in Hartford, CT, where he opened a paper and printing equipment business and where he also began to spread Judaism as a volunteer.
My father’s dedication led to the beginnings of a Jewish day school, called the Yeshiva of Hartford, of which he became president, and which I attended as a child. He also became the unofficial rabbi of the local synagogue – Young Israel of Hartford – and he learned one-on-one with people on Shabbat mornings or free weekday evenings. He also learned with groups of local teenagers on Shabbat afternoons. As a result, he had a tremendous influence on hundreds of young people who are Torah-observant today and whose children and grandchildren now lead Torah lifestyles.
Starting in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, he used to occasionally go to New York to meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He needed advice with what he was trying to accomplish in Hartford and, although I don’t think that my father became a chasid of the Rebbe in the strict sense, the Rebbe was the person that he’d turn to for guidance. I thought that was the extent of the relationship.
The World is my Teacher
Tue, Oct 10, 2017
I come from a Lubavitch family. In fact, my father was educated at the Lubavitch yeshivah in Russia. He subsequently immigrated to Israel, where he married my mother, and then they moved on to the United States. That is where I was raised and where I also attended a Lubavitch yeshivah.
Together with my brother Zalman, I enrolled in the Lubavitch yeshivah when it first opened in New York in 1941. This was right after the Previous Rebbe, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, was rescued from Nazi Europe and established his headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
During those early years, it was my privilege to get to know the Previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who later became the seventh Rebbe, although during the years I am talking about – 1941 to 1951 – he was known as Ramash.
While I was studying in the Chabad yeshivah, on Shabbat mevarchim, the last Shabbat before a new month, there was a kiddush. Typically, the kiddush blessing was made on wine, and there was also vodka and other drinks, as well as some cake. Ramash would sit at the head of the table, as the group would sing some songs and then he would speak for about forty minutes or so. Often, he would choose a subject that was relevant to the guests who were there, relating the lesson to our service of G-d.
One time, when a pants manufacturer named Mr. Denberg was visiting from Montreal, the Rebbe described the whole dry-cleaning process and how it served as a metaphor for our service of G-d. Unfortunately, I do not remember the details of that lesson.
The Meeting that Lasted 45 Years
Tue, Oct 03, 2017
I grew up in South Africa in a family that was focused on Jewish education. In fact, although they were not religious, my parents were influential in establishing the first Jewish day school in South Africa where I was educated.
In 1959, shortly after graduating high school, I made aliyah to Israel. There I studied law and also started keeping Shabbat and observing Torah. Eventually, I went to work for the Jewish Agency and was sent as its emissary to the United States.
While in the United States – I was posted to the Baltimore office – I was asked one day in 1969 to accompany a person of great distinction who was visiting from Israel to his meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I myself had never met the Rebbe although, of course, I knew about him – one can’t grow up Jewish without having heard of Chabad or the Rebbe.
The very important visitor from Israel – whom I am not at liberty to name – was not Torah-observant, but he wanted to behave in a correct manner when meeting the Rebbe, and this was the reason my assistance was requested.
We arrived at Chabad Headquarters in Crown Heights, where the gentleman from Israel was welcomed with great respect and taken to see the Rebbe while I waited outside. After about a half-hour, he came out and said that the Rebbe wanted to speak with me. I said, “You must be mistaken. There is no reason why the Rebbe would want to speak with me.” But he insisted that I go in.
Before I tell of what took place when I went into the Rebbe’s office, I have to mention that shortly before these events, I had decided to leave the field of Jewish education and had accepted a position to run a new start-up business in Israel.
This is why I was so astonished by what happened next.
I walked into the room, and the Rebbe was standing there. I knew I was standing in the presence of greatness. It is hard for me to describe the emotional feeling of coming face-to-face with the Rebbe – I can only say that it was a rare moment in my life. I felt the Rebbe’s presence fill the entire room, and I felt the love in his eyes. He took my hand, held it in both of his hands and said to me in Yiddish, “Avraham, bleibt in chinuch – Avraham, stay in education.”
There Is No Point of No Return
Wed, Sep 27, 2017
As a psychologist working in Israel during the 1940s, I worked with Holocaust survivors, many of them children, who were absolutely traumatized. For example, I saw a 17-year-old boy who only weighed 75 pounds, and who would look at every scrap of food as if he was starving; he would steal and hoard food every chance he got.
And, of course, people were asking, “Is there hope for children like this? Will they ever be able to build a future? Will they ever be able to forget what they’ve been through?” Many were of the opinion that there is nothing we can do to help these children because they’d seen too much of the world’s evil.
But I thought, “We cannot afford to lose even one child.”
Subsequently, I went to study at the University of Geneva under Jean Piaget and Carl Jung and others, and in 1954, I founded the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential (ICELP) in Jerusalem, dedicated to a theory I developed, which I called the theory of malleability of intelligence.
Basically, I said, “Yes, we can help these children and all children, no matter their developmental problems. We can help them change because they are human beings who have a divine spirit in them.”
At the time I advanced this theory – that human beings are modifiable, that they are not necessarily limited by their genetics – it was considered heresy. People simply did not believe that the brain could change, although now it is an accepted fact that there is no part of the body as flexible and changeable as the brain.
The Rebbe knew about my work and totally supported it. He frequently sent children to me – some with developmental problems, some with Down syndrome, and some who were epileptic. Wherever I went, people were coming up to me, saying, “The Rebbe wants you to see our child.” As well, I received letters from the Rebbe about particular children whom he wanted me to see.
Each time he sent me a referral it was accompanied by his blessing, “Zayt matzliach – May you be successful.” With that blessing, I got a feeling of empowerment – that, no matter how very difficult the case, I could help this particular child. I saw that he believed that even people with genetic disorders could be turned into functioning individuals who could be brought close to Judaism, who could study Torah.
Tue, Sep 19, 2017
I was born in 1929 in Chicago, where I have lived for most of my life. After high school, I enrolled at Northwestern University to study architectural engineering, and later got a job in the construction industry.
Most of my friends at that time were survivors of the Soviet labor camps or had been taken further east as children, to former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan, before immigrating to Chicago. Among them was a Belzer chasid who introduced me to the Rebbe’s published talks. I was impressed at how clear the Rebbe made everything sound, and that led me to attend a Chabad class conducted by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Hecht, a local Chabad rabbi. I found this class most uplifting – in fact, I became totally enamored with it. So much so, that I would go home afterwards and stay up until two or three in the morning reviewing what I had learned.
Naturally, I wanted to meet the Rebbe and, in 1967, I managed to arrange an audience, the first of what turned out to be many over the years.
I didn’t know what to expect, and I was hesitant when I opened the door to the Rebbe’s office, but he said, “Welcome. Sit down.” I didn’t. “I think I’d better stand,” I said, and I stood.
I would just like to say that it is difficult for me to describe what it was like talking with the Rebbe. I had the sense that I was in the presence of a loving parent, a great teacher and my best friend all rolled into one. I felt he meant business, but also that he loved me. And I felt very comfortable talking with him.
At first, he spoke to me in Yiddish, but we began discussing technical engineering terms, which I only understand in English. When he saw that I didn’t understand well enough, he switched to English – his English was grammatically perfect even though he had a strong accent. He asked me various questions about architectural engineering. For example, he wanted to know how a cantilever works. He asked, “A balcony that sticks out of a building without any visible support – why doesn’t it fall down?”
From the Kitchen to the Mishnah
Wed, Sep 13, 2017
I first met the Rebbe shortly after Passover of 1953, after my engagement to my husband, Dov Zlotnick. Dov was a student at JTS–the Jewish Theological Seminary–and he told me that before he met me, he had gone to the Rebbe for a blessing to find the right girl to marry. Now that the Rebbe’s blessing had been fulfilled, he wanted us both to get another blessing for our married life together.
I was twenty years old at the time–quite young. I had come from a long line of Lithuanian Jews, so I was not quite comfortable with this. But I went along with Dov anyway.
Thinking back on that visit now, I remember what an unusual experience it was for me, something of a culture shock. The Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights looked to me like a yeshivah out of 19th century Europe. I remember seeing a large room filled with tables around which young men sat learning out loud. I looked at this sight, and I wondered how anyone could concentrate with so much noise.
Then we were ushered down a hallway and asked to wait. We waited for quite a while. I assume that the Rebbe never rushed anybody because it was a long time before the people inside left and our turn came.
When we finally went in, the Rebbe proved quite impressive, and meeting him was an experience I will never forget.
The walls in the Rebbe’s room were lined with books. I recall the corner where he sat behind his desk was well-lit. There were a couple of chairs in front of the desk, where we were invited to sit. Although the rest of the room was dim, there was enough light for me to see the Rebbe’s eyes as he spoke. He was tremendously animated. I remember he focused on us, and I do not recall anybody else ever paying me this much attention–an unusual amount of attention.
I don’t remember what we discussed; I only remember the Rebbe and my strong impression of him. That was the first meeting.
Then came the time when the Rebbe had a major impact on the trajectory of my life.
In 1964, while Dov was teaching at JTS, he decided to start a Shabbat afternoon Talmud class in Riverdale for the men in the neighborhood. The class was small at first, attended by just a couple of men, but it quickly grew to about fifteen participants. They followed a study group format–everyone had to prepare the material in advance, and then Dov would expound on it. They would also study various Talmudic commentators, so the class was conducted on a high level. Dov was very proud of this, and the next time he went to see the Rebbe, he told him about it.
The Rebbe listened very carefully, and then asked, “What do the women do during this time?”
Dov answered that the women were in the kitchen preparing the third meal of Shabbat.
“Dov, that’s not good enough,” the Rebbe replied. When Dov came home from his audience with the Rebbe, he informed me: “Alice, the Rebbe said that the women must study too, so you must teach a class
to the women.”
“What are you talking about? I’m a professional artist–I’m not prepared to teach a class!” I said.
But after Dov told me how emphatic the Rebbe was that the women must do this, I agreed: “Alright, but you prepare me. Go over the material with me, and I’ll try to teach it.”
That was forty years ago. Since then, as a result of that class, I’ve learned a lot of Mishnah, which is the core of the Talmud. In addition, preparing for the class meant that I got to spend some very special time with my husband, a professor of Talmud, who is well known for his comprehensive knowledge of the Mishnah. One of the books he wrote, The Iron Pillar, is an in-depth study of the Mishnah, which received high praise from scholars in the field.