200 Years of Hindsight

13 July 2016

I grew up in a non-chasidic background and interestingly enough, I married a girl from a Lubavitcher family. From the beginning, she asked me to accept Chabad customs and the Rebbe’s directives upon myself. For a while I resisted – I would keep my own customs while she kept hers. For instance, on Passover, she would eat hand-made matzah while I ate mine machine-made; she would keep her matzah dry, while I would dip mine in liquid.

Then, one day I decided to consult a rabbi – not chasidic – who actually told me that I should listen to my wife. As a result of his advice, I began conducting myself according to Chabad customs, except that I would not pray with the Chabad liturgy. The 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement, the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, published a prayer book based on the Sephardic text used by the Ari, the great 16th century Kabbalist.

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My wife suggested that I ask the Rebbe about this. I agreed and, in 1962, wrote him a letter: First, I asked, was it permissible for chasidim to change their prayer liturgy – wasn’t one obligated to follow familial custom?  Second, how was it possible to know who was greater – the great chasidic master, the Alter Rebbe, or the great opponent of chasidic ways, the Vilna Gaon? Underlying my question was the thought that if such a great Torah scholar as the Vilna Goan was opposed to Chasidut, then why should I delve into its teachings?

I never received an answer to my letter, but about eight months later, I met the Rebbe in person for the first time. During our visit to New York, my wife and I were able to have two private audiences with him – one long meeting upon our arrival and a second, shorter, audience just before we left.

As our first audience was coming to an end, as we were turning to leave, the Rebbe stopped us, “One moment. I still owe you a reply to your letter.”

I stopped, surprised that, so many months later, the Rebbe still remembered it.

“Regarding your first question,” the Rebbe began. “If people had never varied from familial ways, the Chasidic Movement would never have been founded. However, Chasidism was not meant to nullify or change anything; rather its founder’s purpose was only to reveal new dimensions in Judaism that weren’t well known in those days.

“As for your second question, the Vilna Gaon’s opposition to Chasidism was based on the fact that it was an anomaly to him, and he was worried that it would lead to a deterioration of Torah observance. But now – over two hundred years later – you can see for yourself that this has not been the case. If I would ask you ‘How does a chasid look?’ You would describe to me a Jew who sports a beard, prays at length and fulfills mitzvot scrupulously. Had the Vilna Gaon foreseen how the Chasidic Movement would develop, he would certainly never have opposed it in the first place.” (more…)

The Mysterious Visitor

6 July 2016

I was born in 1938 in Poland, right before the Second World War broke out. During the war I was hidden with a non-Jewish family, and only with G-d’s help did I manage to survive. After the war my mother located me and – with no home left to go to –placed me temporarily in an orphanage near Paris, headed by Rabbi Zalman Schneerson, a Lubavitcher chasid who worked tirelessly to locate Jewish children hidden in Christian homes during the war.

It was there that I received my Jewish education and was taught how to read Hebrew and how to pray. One day, in 1947, we were told that we were expecting an important visitor, and we were to dress in our finest. When he arrived I remember that he was a tall man and very distinguished looking. He spoke to each one of us – one by one – thirty children in all. He asked us our names and then quizzed each child with an easy question, such as: “What blessing do you make on an apple?”

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When my turn came, he asked me: “When do we recite the thanksgiving prayer, Hallel?” I answered correctly that we recite it on the holidays and at the beginning of every month.

A few months later the orphanage received a package of large prayer books as a gift from the mysterious visitor. The gift was greatly appreciated, because we only had small books which were not easy to read.

It was not until later, when I immigrated to New York, that I learned who the illustrious visitor was – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the cousin of the orphanage’s administrator and future Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the time, he had been in France arranging documentation for his mother, who was then residing in Paris.

Several years after these events, I ended up leaving my mother in Paris and enrolling in the central Lubavitcher yeshivah in Brooklyn One day I received a message from Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, that the Rebbe wanted to see me. “At eight this evening, you have an appointment for a private audience with the Rebbe,” he said.

I was extremely nervous; I couldn’t fathom what the Rebbe might want from me. When I entered the room, the Rebbe must have noticed my anxiety because he immediately assured me that nothing bad was going to happen. Then he explained the reason why I was summoned: “I received a letter from your mother, asking my advice whether she should move to America or not. And I would like to ask you some questions before I advise her.”

The Rebbe first wanted to know where she lived now, and I answered that she was residing in the home of my non-observant sister and her husband, keeping house for them, cooking, cleaning and watching their child while they were at work.

The Rebbe asked, “When your mother cooks, may I assume that the food is kosher?” (more…)

How to Publish a Newspaper

29 June 2016

I began my journalism career in Tel Aviv as a local writer for the religious newspaper Hatzofe (“The Observer”). After several years, I was promoted to the post of managing editor for the entire newspaper.

Two years prior to my promotion – that is, in 1958 – I had reason to be in New York, and when my father heard about my impending trip, he urged me to use the occasion to meet the Rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch. Although my father was not a Chabad chasid himself, he would regularly correspond with the Rebbe via the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov.

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I obeyed my father and I made an appointment, which was scheduled several days after Purim for eleven o’clock at night. When I arrived at the Chabad Headquarters in Crown Heights, the first thing that struck me was the level of activity which was taking place at such a late hour. It might as well have been the middle of the day. I waited while many others waited with me, secretaries rushed to and fro, and yeshivah students studied Torah in the adjoining room. Finally, at one o’clock in the morning, I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study.

As soon as I entered, the Rebbe stood up. He greeted me with a smile on his face and he shook my hand. He invited me to sit down and, after a brief introduction, we began discussing the function of a newspaper – more specifically, a religious newspaper.

“The truth of the matter is,” he said, “the world would probably be better off without newspapers altogether. Rather than reading them, people’s time would be better spent studying Torah. But since newspapers do exist, there is a danger that people might read the wrong newspapers and be influenced by ideas counter to Judaism, it is absolutely necessary that there should be religious newspapers to present the news in a way that will bring Jews closer to Judaism.”

The Rebbe continued, “Only when a religious newspaper serves such a purpose does it have a reason to publish. For instance, if it reports that President Eisenhower met with another head of state in a way that demonstrates this is all part of G-d’s plan, then such a newspaper is supporting Judaism.”

The Rebbe emphasized the importance of maintaining a high standard of quality; otherwise people will be motivated to search for news elsewhere, defeating the entire purpose. But, while maintaining quality, the reporters and editors must always keep Judaism in the forefront of their minds, he said.

I asked him about several controversial issues we were facing. For instance, there was a great debate among our editorial staff if we should report on sporting events. Many staffers opposed the idea because sports have absolutely no correlation with religion and therefore, they felt, such reporting does not belong in a religious newspaper. (more…)

The Show Must Go On

22 June 2016

After I got married in 1961, I got involved with the Lubavitch community in Montreal, Canada, where we were living.

One of the first issues that came up was the lack of any kind of entertainment venues for the community – such as movies or theater productions. So, in order to fix that, I helped start a drama group with the aim of producing plays for women. Once a year around Purim time, we would stage a play with the proceeds going to Maot Chittim (the so-called “Wheat Fund” which provided poor families with Passover necessities).

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Not only was the religious community served by these shows, many non-observant Jews got involved as well. They auditioned for parts in the plays and, in the process, we all became friends. In this way we were able to get to know people whom we’d never have met otherwise. And, as the rehearsals took place three or four nights a week, in the course of working so closely together, we had a lot of influence on them.

The shows were done quite professionally. We hired directors and musicians, and the scripts were written by Mrs. Golda Schwei, who adapted Broadway musicals, rewriting them and giving them a Jewish theme. For instance, we took The Sound of Music and called it The Sound of Torah. We kept the music, but we rewrote the lyrics. The result was a classy production, and our first two performances were filled to the capacity.

Of course, we sent the Rebbe a ticket each time, and each time, he sent us a letter wishing us success. As well, when he learned that some people ridiculed our efforts, he sent us a letter of support.

After four years of doing this, we realized that we had to stop. It just took too much effort. For fourth months, while we were rehearsing, we were consumed by the project. During this time, our husbands had to watch the kids. We’d be running out seven o’clock each night, and our husbands had to do the homework with the kids and put them to sleep. For those ladies whose husbands balked, it wasn’t easy.

Nevertheless, because the plays were so successful, we didn’t give up, even when it was clear we should. We kept saying, “This is going to be the last one,” but the next year we would start up again.

Then we finally decided – this is it. Our husbands were fed up; they didn’t want us doing it anymore.

But then the Rebbe stepped in. (more…)

“Listen To Your Doctor”

15 June 2016

I grew up in Long Island, the son of Russian immigrant parents, who had escaped religious persecution and who raised me and my siblings in a non-observant atmosphere. I went to college in the late 1960s which was a very wild time. The hippie culture was on the rise, and young people were challenging the status quo. I also took part in that, questioning Judaism (among other things) and concluding that it didn’t really have much substance.

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One day in the mid-1970s all of that changed, when I encountered a large van filled with young yeshivah students, which I later learned was called a Mitzvah Tank. One of the students asked me if I was Jewish, and when I answered that I was, he pulled me into the van and began wrapping teffilin on my arm. I remember being impressed by his earnestness and how important this seemed to him and his colleagues. When he finished, he convinced me to sign up for a new campaign the Rebbe had launched: the mezuzah campaign. A short while later, I received a brand new mezuzah for my apartment, free of charge.

From that point on I began exploring Judaism and, when I went to Medical College of Milwaukee, I got in touch with Rabbi Yisrael Shmotkin, who was the Chabad emissary there. Eventually, I ended up renting a room together with four other medical students at the Lubavitch House of Milwaukee. Needless to say we had a tremendous experience, and I began leading a Torah-observant life.

A few years later, in 1978, after I finished medical school, I moved on to Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx as an oncology fellow. While I was there, a fifty-year-old Iranian Jew who had recently immigrated to the United States came in for a consultation; as I recall he was accompanied by his two sons, and all were wearing yarmulkes.

As an oncology fellow, it was my duty to evaluate new patients. I took down this man’s medical history, and I learned that his family had lived in Iran for many generations. However, he left for the United States in order to get treatment for a blood tumor, known as multiple myeloma. This tumor can be quite aggressive, but often it hangs on for years until it finally gains momentum, and then it becomes problematic very quickly.

Initially, this patient had been treated in Baltimore, but after encountering some problems there, decided he wanted a second opinion and came to us.

It seemed to me that his myeloma was under control, so I decided to continue his current therapy to see how he would do over the next few months, and then make a decision. (more…)

The Fiery Conductor

8 June 2016

I studied law at the London School of Economics, which we also called the London Shul of Economics because of the many Americans Jews studying there. Among my extra-curricular activities, I played violin in the school’s orchestra, eventually becoming its conductor.

In 1970, because of my previous involvement with the Jewish Society at LSE, I was invited by the World Union of Jewish Students to perform at their conference in Philadelphia. And when my friend Rabbi Shmuel Lew, who was the Chabad emissary in London, heard that I would be passing through New York, he offered to arrange an audience with the Rebbe for me.

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Of course, I jumped at the chance.

Rabbi Lew had also arranged a place for me to stay in Crown Heights over Shabbat, and thus I was able to attend the Rebbe’s farbrengen on Shabbat afternoon. The experience was unbelievable. Although I couldn’t understand everything the Rebbe was saying, I did understand that he was urging everyone to love their fellow Jews. And when he said l’chaim, it felt to me as if he was saying l’chaim to me alone. This memory is something that is as real to me today, forty-five years later, as if it happened yesterday.

I was really impressed by the singing and camaraderie of the chasidim. But what affected me most profoundly were the survivors of the Siberian gulag who were there. Despite the harsh and oppressive conditions, they had prevailed in keeping keep the flame of Judaism alive in the Soviet Union. Right then and there, I decided that I didn’t want to be a lawyer – there were enough Jewish lawyers in the world; I wanted to make a bigger difference, and from that moment I committed my life to Jewish education.

Several days later, I had my one-on-one meeting with the Rebbe, which was conducted in English. At the outset I told him that I have a passion for two things – chamber music and chasidic melodies.

“What connection do chasidic melodies have with chamber music?” the Rebbe asked.

I answered that chamber music – especially that composed by Beethoven – is one of the most specialized forms of classical music. It’s very intense and deep. I felt that chasidic melodies had the exact same components.

Thus began a lively discussion about music. The Rebbe told me that the Alter Rebbe – Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who was the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement – was able to wash away a person’s impurities with music. He then went on to explain that we each have an intellectual and an emotional side. Our emotions seek expression through music as well as other art forms, which tap into the deepest levels of who we are. (more…)

No Operation Needed

1 June 2016

My name is Dr. Harold Serebro. I was born and educated at Wits University in South Africa, where I studied medicine and from where I graduated as a medical doctor in 1961. I then did specialist training at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, and at Queens University in Ontario. After this, I returned to South Africa and opened a practice in gastroenterology.

In the course of my life, I became friendly with Rabbi Nachman Bernhard, who was my rabbi at the Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg. One day – sometime in the early 1980s – he arrived at my clinic with a pile of x-rays in his hand. He told the nurse in charge that he had to see me right away regarding an urgent matter.

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It was a very busy day for me, but I knew he would not be so insistent if it was not important, so I finished my examination of the patient I was with and asked him to come into my office.

He explained his dilemma to me: He had a congregant who was an elderly lady, very sick. X-rays had revealed that she needed an operation urgently, but he had consulted with the Lubavitcher Rebbe on her behalf, and the Rebbe said that she cannot have an operation.

So I said to him, “What do you want me to do exactly?”

He said, “Look at the x-rays.”

Now, I would just like to point out that in those days there were no MRI scans, no ultra-sound, nor did we have available to us many of the sophisticated tests which we have now. X-rays were very important for diagnosis – in particular a diagnostic procedure called intravenous pyelogram, or IVP, during which a contrast medium is introduced into the patient’s bloodstream in order to x-ray the renal system.

I took a look. And I could clearly see that this lady had cancer in the upper pole of the kidney on the right – it was a well circumscribed cancer, a big mass.

“If these are the x-rays you sent to the Rebbe, it clearly shows cancer here,” I said.

He said, “I know, but the Rebbe says that no operation can be done on this lady.” So I said to him, “Rabbi Bernhard, there’s a big cancer here. You are a rabbi and not a doctor – you can’t interfere with the medical care of a patient. This woman needs an urgent operation.”

“There has to be a major reason why the Rebbe was so adamant she have no operation,” he replied. (more…)

Founding a Hospital

25 May 2016

In 1975, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenburger Rebbe, opened a not-for-profit hospital in Netanya, Israel. In response to the astonishment of many that a Chassidic Rebbe would establish a hospital, he explained:

“While incarcerated in a Nazi death camps, I was shot in the arm. I was afraid to go to the Nazi infirmary, though there were doctors there. I knew that if I went in, I’d never come out alive … so I plucked a leaf from a tree and stuck it to my wound to stanch the bleeding. Then I cut a branch and tied it around the wound to hold it in place. With G-d’s help, it healed in three days. I promised myself then that, if I got out of there, I would build a hospital in Israel where every human being would be cared for with dignity. And the basis of that hospital would be that the doctors and nurses would believe that there is a G-d in this world and that, when they treat a patient, they are fulfilling the greatest mitzvah of the Torah.”

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The Sanzer Rebbe asked me to oversee the project while it was still in the early stages of development and the eventual director of the hospital. He wanted me to carry out his plan of creating a hospital which offered the highest level of care, while at the same time adhering to the highest level of Torah observance. Although this was a noble goal, we were struggling to raise the necessary funds. The Israeli Health Ministry, run by a secular party, was not very keen on supporting the project and most people were skeptical that we would actually succeed. Our main donors were Sanz chasidim who felt obligated to donate because it was their Rebbe’s undertaking. So we decided to establish a fund-raising committee and expand our reach to North and South America.

As part of this effort, the committee decided to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn and ask for his assistance and advice. Five members of the committee were chosen to go and I, as the director of the hospital, flew in from Israel to participate in the meeting.

We started off by introducing ourselves to the Rebbe and, being the youngest, my turn came last. I said, “I am the director of this hospital but I have no certification or experience whatsoever. My only experience till now has been assisting the Sanzer Rebbe. In fact, an Israeli newspaper headlined their story about the hospital with, ‘The Assistant who Became a Director.’”

The Rebbe reassured me, “I can only tell you one thing. The Sanzer Rebbe knows what he is doing and if he thinks that you are qualified for the job, then you do not need anyone else’s blessing.”

I felt very relieved; if I had the support of these two great rabbis then I was sure to succeed.

We began discussing the technicalities of the project in great depth. The Rebbe asked us many questions that we never dreamed he would ask and I had a hard time answering. Only one member of the committee, Rabbi Shlomo Greenwald, who had previous experience working in hospitals was capable of giving the answers. We were greatly surprised by the knowledge which the Rebbe displayed and by his pragmatic approach. (more…)

The Real Medicine

19 May 2016

I first met the Lubavitcher Rebbe a few years after he arrived in the United States from war-torn Europe. Of course, he was not the Rebbe then; he was the son-in-law of the Previous Rebbe. At that time, I was enrolled in the Chabad Yeshiva in Crown Heights, and I would see him from time to time although I had very little contact with him.

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In 1951, a year after the Previous Rebbe’s passing, he took over the leadership, and the works of wonder began almost immediately. I have several stories to tell about that.

One Shabbat, the phone in our home started ringing. Of course, we didn’t answer the phone on Shabbat, but it kept ringing and ringing. Whoever was calling finally rang our landlord, and we learned that the son of my grandfather’s friends had fallen into a deep coma and was in critical condition; his parents were calling because they wanted us to go to the Rebbe for a blessing.

I was selected to be the one to ask the Rebbe.

After Shabbat, I went to the Rebbe’s office. When he saw me standing outside his door, he invited me in, and I related their request. His instructions to me were to go to the hospital and scream in the man’s ear first the Previous Rebbe’s name and mother’s name, and then the man’s name and his mother’s name.

Interestingly enough, earlier that year the Rebbe related that, one time, a woman had fallen into a deep coma and the Previous Rebbe instructed her relatives to whisper his name into her ear. When they did so, she immediately began to stir and a short while made a full recovery.

So I did this. I went to the hospital and saw this man – his name was Noah Daniel, he was a department head in New York City’s Department of Taxation and Finance – lying there, white as a sheet. I put my lips to his ear and screamed as loud as I could what the Rebbe told me. Suddenly, he began to shake forcefully! Everybody watching was amazed. But he was still very much out of it. The doctors told his family that he was at death’s door. Even if he survived, he would never be normal again; likely, he would live out the rest of his life in a vegetative state. (more…)

“Every Jew is an example”

13 May 2016
Although I am descended from a traditional Sephardic family, originating in Salonika, I was not given much of a Jewish education as a youngster. It was not until I enrolled in college that I began thinking about religion and asking questions, though, at first, I found little in terms of answers.
And then I came across Chabad Lubavitch. in the early 1960s I was in graduate school at Penn State, pursuing a Ph.D. in psychics, and I was greatly disturbed by some of the ideas that were taken for granted in academia – that we human beings are just a speck of matter in the cosmos, and that there is no special meaning or purpose to life. It was right at that time that the rabbi of the Hillel House on campus brought in a group of Chabad chasidim to help enliven Shabbat for the Jewish students, which they certainly did – I remember especially the songs they sang. But what impressed me more than anything was that these chasidim were totally unapologetic about being Jewish – in fact, they were the first Jews I’d ever met who actually seemed to be happy about it.

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The following week I had a test in advanced mathematics, but I couldn’t concentrate on my studies, and I couldn’t sleep. I confided my feelings to the Hillel rabbi who recognized a spiritual yearning within me; he even voiced the opinion that it might be a good idea for me to study in a yeshivah for a time. But the best thing he did was to arrange an audience for me with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
That audience lasted over an hour. I remember that the Rebbe took great pains to make me feel comfortable. I think he understood right at the outset what my problems were, and why I felt so conflicted about being Jewish. He said to me, “A Jew has to be at one with G-d and His Torah before he can feel whole. Without that, he is not going to feel like a complete person.”
I walked out of that audience knowing that somehow my life had been changed forever. And indeed it was. For one thing, I decided to enroll in the Chabad yeshivah, a move the Rebbe encouraged – although he urged me to first finish out the semester at Penn State. He also warned me that adjustment to yeshivah life would be a challenge for me. He said, “For the first six months you should not ask yourself what you are doing in yeshivah, because you will not be able to answer that question.” And that proved exactly true.
My family was not happy that I was interrupting Ph.D. studies to enroll in yeshivah, and they were worried that I might have gone off the deep end, but I was determined, and they didn’t stand in my way.
A few weeks into my yeshivah studies, Rabbi Hodakov, the Rebbe’s secretary, asked me if I could set up a Torah learning program for college students during the winter break. I responded that I didn’t think that students would give up their entire vacation to sit and learn, but they might come for a weekend. He gave me the authority to do as I saw fit. I engaged several others in the project, including Rabbi Shmuel Lew. We called it “An Encounter with Chabad” or Pegisha Im Chabad. (more…)
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