“They Are Observant”

18 November 2015

I was born on Yom Kippur in 1938, in the city of Kazan, Tatarstan, Soviet Russia, where I was educated in Torah by underground Chabad teachers. At a time when the practice of Judaism was against the law, a Chabad chasid used to come to our home to teach us the basics, despite the danger of imprisonment.

In this oppressive environment, my parents tried their best to be Torah observant. Even after the war when we moved to Moscow, where Jewish life was even harder, they took great pains to keep kosher and, against all odds, they succeeded.

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I attended public school and I tried to avoid desecrating Shabbos as much as I could. Generally, this was not completely possible, though I managed to play hooky on the Jewish High Holidays. After that, in 1955, I went to university – the Moscow Conservatory of Music – to become a pianist, and I was arrested twice while trying to attend the great Moscow Choral Synagogue. I was questioned and held in jail a few days each time, but I suffered no further fallout from those incidents.

From that time on, I – along with the rest of my family – was actively trying to leave Russia. Finally, in 1970, a Chabad emissary went to the Rebbe in New York to ask for the Rebbe’s blessing that we get out. And less than a year later – at a time when this was near impossible! – we received the green light to go. As soon as we arrived in America, of course we came to see the Rebbe to express our gratitude.

That was the first time I participated in a farbrengen and saw thousands of Jews gathered together – something which was forbidden in Russia. It was amazing to hear the Rebbe speak and to see everyone so happy, singing with such joy. For me, it was an unbelievable experience. (more…)

“Far Above Medical School”

11 November 2015

I would like to tell a very beautiful and very moving story about my son, myself and the Rebbe.

When my son, Shmaryahu, was a baby, he was very sickly. He was feverish all the time. If someone sneezed three miles away, he would get a cold. He had almost no immunity, and his health was of great concern to me.

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At fourteen months, he ended up in the hospital – Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles – and that was the first big scare I had with him. At that time, he was tested for cystic fibrosis, a horrible prospect for a mother to hear. The first set of tests was pointing that way, and I was really in a panic since cystic fibrosis can be hereditary and I was seven months pregnant with my second son. I started to get contractions just because of the stress.

We wrote to the Rebbe, asking for a blessing. And then the doctors did some more tests which showed that they had made a mistake. He did not have cystic fibrosis but a milk allergy.

When I heard that I was so happy and so thankful at this turn of events. For whatever reason, I had to go through that angst but, in the end, it was something very minor.

As time went by, Shmaryahu got stronger but he did not get much bigger. He was very tiny and was not growing as a child should. He was just very small compared to other children his age.

When he was five, my pediatrician – a very well-known doctor – said to me, “I’m going send you to the top endocrinologist in California. People come to him from all over the world. It’s very hard to get an appointment with this man, but I’ve arranged one for you. He doesn’t take any insurance. You have to pay up front – one thousand dollars for the visit.” (more…)

Special “Guests” of Honor

4 November 2015

In 1966, my wife and I went to Minnesota, following the Rebbe’s advice that we become Rabbi and Rebbetzin of Adath Israel Congregation in St. Paul. From the very start of our mission, we felt so tremendously supported by the Rebbe, and the stories I would like to share demonstrate how he paid attention to the smallest detail, how he never missed the tiniest thing, and how he looked after us in every way.

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After we established ourselves in St. Paul, I made it a habit to send everything that we published to the Rebbe. I’m talking about synagogue bulletins, newsletters and announcements that were sent out to the entire community, as well as matters of Jewish interest that appeared in the local newspapers.

That first year, my wife and I wanted to organize an event that would attract everybody. We settled on a Purim dinner and sent out an announcement about it, including two tickets for which we charged $5 apiece. This went to every family belonging to the synagogue, and it also went to the Rebbe.

A short while later, I received an envelope from the Rebbe containing two five dollar bills. Inside the envelope was also a typed note stating that this was to cover the cost of two tickets to the Purim dinner.

I still have those two five dollar bills. It was extremely meaningful to me and my wife that the Rebbe had wanted to make us feel like he was participating from afar. We were young and inexperienced but we were trying our best, and it meant so much to us to be supported in this way. Often in our work, we’d hope people would respond but we’d hear nothing, so to get this response from the Rebbe meant the world to us. (more…)

From Despondent to Confident

28 October 2015

My father was born in the Ukraine and grew up there. At age twenty, in 1923, he left in order to avoid the Soviet draft. He traveled from the Ukraine to Romania, where he boarded a boat, thinking he was going to the USA. Unfortunately at that time there were immigrant quotas, so instead of the USA, he ended up in Canada, where he established himself in the menswear business. This was the right move and his business prospered.

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In 1945, the first Chabad emissaries arrived in Canada. There was a group of them – Rabbi Kramer, Rabbi Hendel, Rabbi Greenglass – and my father developed a connection with them, in particular Rabbi Greenglass.

It was at the encouragement of Rabbi Greenglass that my father first went to see the Rebbe – sometime in the early 1950s – to discuss the difficulties surrounding his business. What had happened was that my father owned an old building in Montreal – his store was on the ground floor, and the upper floors were rented out to small manufacturers. One of these small manufacturers found that it was more lucrative to start fires and collect insurance than to sell merchandise. And he did that a few times until the insurance people got tired of paying out. They came to my father and said, “You have a choice – either you install a sprinkler system throughout this old building, or your tear down this old building and put up a new one – but until you do one of those things, your insurance is cancelled.”

Since my father’s was a menswear business, his whole inventory was highly flammable, so it had to be insured. But installing a sprinkler system throughout this building was cost prohibitive. It would have been better to tear it down and start over. He hired an architect to draw up plans, but he didn’t have the wherewithal to go forward with the project. (more…)

The Algemeiner Journal

21 October 2015

My husband – Gershon Jacobson – was the founder, publisher and editor of the Yiddish newspaper, the Algemeiner Journal. The story I would like to tell is how this newspaper came into being, and the role the Rebbe played in its creation and content.

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In 1971, my husband was working as the city editor of Der Tog Morgen Journal, a privately-owned Yiddish daily paper. And then one day he came to work and the door was locked. There was no explanation, just a sign: CLOSED.

Gershon tried to call the owner, but got no answer. Meanwhile, the writers were asking what was going on. Finally, they determined that the owner had been losing money on the paper and just decided to close it. Now they were all out of a job.

Most of the workers at Der Tog Morgen Journal were elderly – in their 70s and 80s. They were semi-retired, while Gershon was only 37 with a growing family to support. And so he had to do something immediately to generate income.

As he looked for an appropriate position – picking up odd writing jobs here and there – it was becoming very apparent that the closing of Der Tog Morgen Journal had had a serious impact on the Yiddish-reading religious public. They had no alternative paper, since the only other Yiddish news journal of consequence was socialist and anti-religious. They had no place for their announcements or for the news of their community.

In short, Der Tog Morgen Journal had to be replaced. My son, Simon, remembers that the Rebbe was very adamant about that. (more…)

Positive Thinking

14 October 2015

I grew up in a Chabad family. In fact, I was six months old when the Previous Rebbe passed away in 1950, and my mother brought me in a carriage to the funeral. When I was three, it was the Rebbe who did my upshernish, that is gave me my first haircut. As a child, I frequently accompanied my father to the Rebbe’s farbrengens, and I remember it all as very exciting – the whole idea of being a Lubavitcher chasid was very exciting.

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Naturally, I attended Chabad yeshivas, and – as was the custom – from the time of my Bar Mitzvah, I would have an annual audience with the Rebbe on the occasion of my birthday. I remember when I was sixteen years old, I had a dilemma weighing heavily on my mind, and of course, I asked the Rebbe’s advice.

What was my dilemma? I couldn’t decide if I should continue studying in yeshiva over the summer, or if I should go work with young children in a summer camp. It might sound silly to ask the Rebbe something like this, but it was quite important for me to do the right thing, and I was ready and willing to do whatever the Rebbe thought best.

The Rebbe said, “Work in the summer camp.” And the reason he gave was “Naase mocho velibo zakin elef pe’amim kacha,” meaning that, through giving to others, one’s heart and intellect become refined a thousand-fold.

A few weeks later, at a farbrengen, the Rebbe repeated this teaching and explained it further. He said that G-d grants us a gift when we set aside our own concerns and devote ourselves to others, and then our heart and intellect become refined a thousand-fold. That means a person could spend a thousand hours studying and trying to reach a higher consciousness, but the one who devotes himself to others acquires the same consciousness within the hour. (more…)

A Humble Office In Brooklyn

7 October 2015

My name is Joe Davidovitz. I am an architect from South Africa. When I first set up my practice in Johannesburg as a young man, I did very well and I built it up quickly – in three or four years – into a massive business. At the height of my success, I was doing property development and employing 1,500 people.

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But then my business started to wobble. This was largely due to my inexperience. I had borrowed money short and invested long. This was a good way to get into trouble. When South Africa’s economy started reeling, there was a tremendous downturn in property values, and raising money for development became impossible.

Around this time – I believe it was in 1974 – I heard good things about a young Chabad rabbi who had come to South Africa. This was Rabbi Mendel Lipskar, and I went to hear him speak.

The time I went he was speaking about the Exodus from Egypt and what happened when the Jews arrived at the Red Sea and realized they were trapped. That struck a chord with me because I was in exactly the same place; I was at the sea with no future in front of me, with my business about to collapse.

Rabbi Lipskar’s father was there also – he was a really wise man, a very fine man – and I mentioned my troubles to him. He said, “You should go to New York and tell all this to the Rebbe.”

I said, “I’m not going to New York to speak to someone about property problems in South Africa.” (more…)

Special Children’s Hakafah

30 September 2015

My name is Pesach Fishman. Since 1988, I have served as an emissary of the Rebbe in South Africa. At first I was assigned to be the rabbi of the Jewish community of Bloemfontein, a provincial city about 400 kilometers from Johannesburg. While there, I also served the Jews in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, which is a separate country from South Africa, but is only about a two-hour drive from Bloemfontein.

It has always amazed me how far the Rebbe’s influence reached. During the first Gulf War in 1990, I remember receiving phone calls from so many far-flung Jews. One called from the middle of Lesotho where there were not even ten Jews – counting men, women and children – wanting to know if it was true that the Rebbe said that Israel would be safe. Another caller lived on a farm 200 kilometers from where I was, and at least 50 kilometers from the nearest Jew – but he, too, heard that the Rebbe said Israel would be safe and wanted to know more.

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To me, this was an indication that the Rebbe’s influence was not confined to major Jewish centers, but extended to every little town. All these people had somehow heard what the Rebbe had to say, and were encouraged and inspired by it.

While I was stationed in Bloemfontein, just before Rosh Hashana of  1989, our son Yosef Yitzchak was born. But, unfortunately, he contracted some type of infection in the hospital and had to be placed in intensive care. He was there for eight days, and he was not improving.

I was hesitant to write to the Rebbe. I didn’t want to take up the Rebbe’s precious time, and I felt that the doctors were doing their best. G-d willing, the situation would resolve itself in its own good time. My wife, however, was insistent that we should write to the Rebbe, so we did.

We didn’t hear back immediately. In those days, we used faxes, as this was before e-mail and communications were not what they are today. But apparently we didn’t need to receive the Rebbe’s written response. The response proved much more vivid. The morning after we wrote the letter, when my wife and I walked into the hospital, the nurse greeted us with these exact words: “A miracle happened here last night! You can take your baby home today.”

Yosef Yitzchak was fine! And thanks to G-d and thanks to the Rebbe’s blessing, we had his bris during Sukkot. (more…)

The Miracle of South Africa

22 September 2015

My name is Yosef Yitzchak (Yossy) Goldman. I was named after the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, being born right after his passing. When my name was announced at my bris, there was a collective gasp, since I was one of the first babies named after him, and the community’s sense of loss was still very fresh and very raw.

As behooves a namesake of a Rebbe, after I completed my studies, I became the Rebbe’s emissary in a faroff land – in my case, South Africa. This happened in 1976, and it came about partly at the instigation of Rabbi Mendel Lipskar. He was the first Chabad emissary to go there, and – since we had been students together in yeshiva and good friends – he wanted me to join him.

Even before I was married, he was already talking to me about it, but I needed to get some more learning under my belt first. When the time came, I had many options. I thought about going to St. Louis because I wanted to serve in a big city, and St. Louis was the biggest city in North America that didn’t have a Chabad presence. But Mendel said to me, “When you consult the Rebbe, please also put Johannesburg on the list.”

And that is what I did. I wrote to the Rebbe presenting my options, and the Rebbe returned my letter with the word Johannesburg underlined. So with one stroke of the pen, the Rebbe dispatched me – and my wife and two small children – to South Africa, which proved to be exactly the right place for us. We went there in 1976 and never looked back.In hindsight, I don’t know how many Chabad emissaries make a life-long commitment to go to a place they’ve never been to before. But that’s what we did. I signed up for a mission on the other side of the world in darkest Africa, which back then was much farther away from New York than it is today. I guess I was  naïve or idealistic, or both, but I never took a trip to check it out. I went trusting the Rebbe that this is where I belonged – that it was our purpose in life to serve the Jews of Johannesburg.

I say “our” because the Rebbe was always careful to include the wives. When I wrote to ask his advice, I made sure to state that my wife is with me, that she is a partner in this mission, and that she is as happy as I am to go wherever the Rebbe decides.

Those who didn’t include their wives when they wrote to the Rebbe requesting his advice were inevitably asked, “Are you writing on behalf of both of you?” The Rebbe made it clear to his emissaries that it can’t be just you deciding on your own and then informing your wife after the fact. The Rebbe made it clear that it’s a partnership – it’s a team effort.


“He Thinks I Don’t Know”

16 September 2015

I spent most of World War Two in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, learning in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva there. After the war ended, the Previous Rebbe dispatched my father to Antwerp to help reopen the Etz Chaim Heida Yeshiva, and I also went, but I didn’t stay there – I moved on to Paris, because it was easier to get a visa for America in France than in Belgium.

It was while I was in Paris, waiting six months for my visa to come through, that I met the Previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – who would later become the Rebbe – and his mother, the Rebbetzin Chana.

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The Rebbetzin had been trapped in Russia during the war but, once it ended, she made her way via various DP camps to Paris. She came there in 1947 and she stayed in the house of her cousin Rabbi Zalman Schneerson, which is where I was also staying.

We often ate dinner together, and we became very friendly. I was there when, to her great joy, her son arrived from New York to take her to America. The necessary documents took a while to arrange and this is when I got to know him.

He made everybody feel so good, even in uncomfortable circumstances. For example, once he started to tell a story, and I interrupted him; I jumped up, miffed, “Hey, I told this story yesterday!” He smiled at me so kindly and said, “Please understand – once I’ve heard a story from my father-in-law, I don’t listen to that story again from anybody else, because I don’t want to mix up their version with what I heard from him.”

How could I be upset, if he had such a good reason and he explained it in such a nice way?!

I also remember another incident. Before Passover, I went to prepare matzah – which required buying wheat and having it ground into flour. As the flour sacks were being readied for transport, I had to make sure nobody took them – something I couldn’t allow to happen. This was the special flour for Passover! So I lay down on top of the sacks and my jacket turned completely white, though I didn’t know it. When I got on the train back to Paris, people were laughing at me, but I thought nothing of it, because the French often made fun of the Jews. When I got home, the Rebbe looked at me and said, “Go look in the mirror!” And he took me by the hand to the washroom and helped me clean up. (more…)

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