In their third issue, Hanochos magazine conducted an interview with Rabbi Mendel Scharf, teacher at Oholei Yosef Yitzchok in Detroit, who was zoiche as a child to many kiruvim from the Rebbe. Special thanks to the staff at Hanochos for sharing it with us.
As children, you and your brothers were zoiche to special kiruvim from the Rebbe. How did this come about?
I grew up in Crown Heights as a regular Lubavitcher child. I would frequent 770 for Shabbos farbrengens, sometimes for dollars, as well as other special occasions.
On Shabbos 8 Tishrei 5750, when I was but 7 years old, my father passed away. The levaya was the next day, and being Erev Yom Kippur, it was the only day we sat shiva; getting up before Yom Tov. I don’t know how or why it came to be, but from that point on – for the next two and a half years – the Rebbe took special care of my brothers and I.
What was the first ‘unusual’ occurrence?
Following Maariv on one of the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos, the Rebbe distributed dollars. This was less than a week after my father passed away. I joined the line to receive a dollar, and as he handed me the bill, the Rebbe exhibited a broad, radiant smile. This is the first unique yachas I remember. I recall discussing this smile with a cousin as we exited 770, as well as repeating it to my mother when I got home. It’s probably thanks to these conversations that I remember it until today.
From then on, the Rebbe would keep a constant eye on us. We would stand near the Rebbe’s place during davening, and he would watch us recite Kaddish, and respond amen together with us. At farbrengens we would sit right near the Rebbe on the floor. The other children were on the Rebbe’s left, while my brothers and I sat on the right.
In general we felt that the Rebbe was always looking out for us, making sure we were OK. We knew that whenever we were in 770, the Rebbe would look after us.
How was it that you started davening by the Rebbe’s place?
As I recall, it began on the first night of Sukkos 5750 – exactly a week after my father passed away. I’m not sure why, but my brothers and I had been standing at the shul’s mizrach end. When the Rebbe turned around and faced the shul to say a sicha after Maariv, chassidim began coming closer to be able to hear. Being small children, we were slowly pushed further away. As the Rebbe was about to start the sicha, we were suddenly being searched for, and before we knew it, a path had been cleared for us to walk toward the Rebbe (I later heard that the Rebbe had told Reb Leibel Groner that we should come stand closer). As we were approaching the Rebbe’s place, I noticed the Rebbe looking at us, awaiting our arrival. We went up to the Rebbe’s Bima and sat on the floor near the Rebbe’s Sicha shtender. The Rebbe looked down at us and was me’oded with his hand. Upon finishing the sicha and alighting the bima, the Rebbe turned around once more when he reached the steps and was again me’oded.
From then on, during Davening we would stand in the corner near the Bima between the staircase and the mizrach wall, and in addition to often observing us, the Rebbe would be me’oded us with hand motions as he approached his place, as well as on the way out.
This was your place until Chof Zayin Adar?
Yes. The mazkirus and Vaad Hamesader actually thought that this would only be for the first year, because we were saying Kaddish. But the Rebbe wanted us to continue standing there even after it was over.
I remember that the night we had finished saying Kaddish, we approached our place as usual for Maariv. But the Vaad Hamesader thought our zechus was now over, so Reb Meir Harlig came over and told us we should leave. Suddenly the Rebbe turned around and looked at us, reassuring that we should stay put. And so we did, all the way until Chof Zayin Adar.
So on Simchas Torah, you would be near the Rebbe at Hakafos?
Yes, and we were actually even closer than the rest of the year. We would usually stand between the Rebbe’s bima and the chazan. Due to the great crowds on Simchas Torah, however, we would actually stand on the Rebbe’s bima, right near him.
B’zchus standing right near the Rebbe at Hakafos for three consecutive years, I have, until today, a very clear memory of the Ata Hareisa recital.
The first year – 5750, something very special occurred. It was leil Shemini Atzeres, and my brothers and I arrived a bit late to 770, probably just as the Rebbe was entering shul. We slowly tried to push our way to our place, but being Simchas Torah it was packed, and we were having a very hard time getting in. All of a sudden my brother and I were lifted up and passed over peoples heads until we reached the Rebbe’s bima. Apparently the Rebbe had asked for us, and was awaiting our arrival. I remember that only once we reached the bima did the Rebbe turn back around to face mizrach.
There was also another time when we sat on the Rebbe’s bima. It was Chanukah Live 5750, and our usual place was occupied, so we ended up sitting on the bima, and the Rebbe was meyaches to us a lot. After the event was over, the Rebbe davened Maariv, so we ended up standing right by the Rebbe for davening. I recall that Reb Leibel Groner wasn’t too thrilled that we were standing on the Rebbe’s bima, but the Rebbe made sure nobody would take us away.
Does anything specific stand out from davening with the Rebbe?
One Shabbos afternoon, we were standing by the Rebbe at mincha following the farbrengen, and it was in the middle of Krias HaTorah. Being children we began talking. All of a sudden the Rebbe turned around and caught my attention, giving me a serious look (this is the only time I recall the Rebbe giving me such a look), and as soon as he saw that I noticed, the Rebbe pointed at the Sefer Torah, motioning that I shouldn’t be talking during kriah.
You mentioned earlier that at the farbrengens as well you would be right near the Rebbe.
We sat next to the Rebbe. All the children would sit on the Rebbe’s left, and we would sit on the Rebbe’s right. During the niggunim the Rebbe would look at us and be me’oded.
Every week the Rebbe would give my youngest brother – Sholom – a piece of cake. At the farbrengens when the Rebbe washed, he would give Sholom a piece of challa, and matzah on Pesach, which he would then share with us as well.
There was one farbrengen during Tishrei 5750, when something very special occured. It was either Shabbos Bereishis or Simchas Torah, and for whatever reason I didn’t wash before the farbrengen. I actually remember my uncle asking me before the farbrengen if I planned on washing, to which I replied in the negative. My brother, on the other hand, did.
After reciting Hamotzi, the Rebbe turned to me, and signalled a washing symbol and then a question mark with his hands. I didn’t understand the sign, but Rabbi Groner came running and asked if I had washed, so I quickly headed to the sinks. Tishrei was packed and I got stuck on the way. I couldn’t go back either because the Rebbe wanted me to wash. So I began crying.
The Rebbe apparently noticed that I was stuck, and I was called back. I was given the kvort that the Rebbe used to wash with, and proceeded to wash with it, the Rebbe watching me throughout. I used the Rebbe’s towel to dry my hands; if I remember correctly, the Rebbe gave it to me to use. The Rebbe then handed me a piece of challah. From then on I always made sure to wash at those farbrengens.
But cake was specifically to your youngest brother?
In general yes, however there were perhaps four or five times during those years that the Rebbe gave me a piece of cake as well.
One of them that stands out was the Shabbos I finished saying Kaddish. We were making a farbrengen for the Siyum Hakadish, and the seder was that if you were making a farbrengen or the like you could submit a bottle of mashke to mazkirus before Shabbos, and the Rebbe would distribute those bottles at the farbrengen. Whoever was holding a farbrengen would approach the Rebbe’s place and he would pour a little l’chaim into their cup, and the Rebbe would hand him the bottle. the recipient would then announce the cause for receiving the bottle, as the Rebbe continued the distribution to the next one on the line.
Being that we were making a farbrengen that week for the Siyum Hakadish, I handed a bottle in to mazkirus before Shabbos, and prepared a few lines to announce when the Rebbe would pour me the l’chaim.
Came Shabbos, and when the Rebbe was distributing the mashke I stood up to receive mine. Now, despite having prepared a few words to say, I was not too excited about making an announcement in front of the entire 770. Turning to the side, the Rebbe poured me mashke, gave me a piece of cake, and handed me the bottle. I decided I wouldn’t be making the announcement, so I just moved to the side so the Rebbe should continue with the chaluka.
But the Rebbe stopped giving out the mashke, turned around, and waited for me to make the announcement, which I did. Only once I finished did the Rebbe turn back and continue distributing the mashke.
This was one of the occasions when the Rebbe gave me a piece of cake at the farbrengen. My impression is that because I was a child saying l’chaim, the Rebbe sensed I would need some cake.
With all this care and attention, would you write to the Rebbe as well?
Sure. We would always submit our report cards and marks, and the general goings on in school. The Rebbe would always respond with maanos such as “ת״ח על הבשו”ט” (thanks for the good tidings), “כן יבשר טוב לעתיד לבוא” (may you continue bearing good news in the future), and “ילכו מחיל אל חיל” (may you go from strength to strength.” We would hand them in through mazkirus like all chassidim.
What was it like receiving all these kiruvim from the Rebbe?
Our feeling throughout those two and a half years was that the Rebbe was taking care of us. Once it started happening, it quickly became the norm, and felt totally natural. We knew that in 770 we would never be alone and the Rebbe would tend to us. We never felt uncomfortable. The Rebbe made us at home; this was our place.
It became our whole life, and it continues to be our whole life.
I could say without any hesitation that both myself and my siblings felt the Rebbe was taking care of us throughout every single step. Today as well, it’s clear to us that the Rebbe is taking care of us in every step of our lives.
Another interesting thing I noticed was that the Rebbe would always show us special attention on days that for whatever reason were difficult for us. We didn’t tell the Rebbe anything, but the Rebbe knew that we had a hard day and would give us extra attention.
There’s no question that the Rebbe’s care carried us through the entire situation and all we went through after losing our father.
Were there any special kiruvim when you would go by dollars?
Very often when we came by dollars, the Rebbe would give us a special smile. The Rebbe would also often make hand motions of encouragement to me.
When I was once going by dollars in the winter of 5752, the Rebbe gave me a dollar, after which I continued walking. But the Rebbe called me back and asked in English “where is your sister?” The very fact that the Rebbe asked me a question was a shock, so it took me a few seconds to compose myself. I was about to answer that my mother and her were standing outside 770, as that was where I had left them. I thought they weren’t planning on coming in for dollars, but they apparently decided right then to join, and just as I was about to say they were outside, they entered the room, so I pointed at them and that was that.
Were there other times the Rebbe said something to you?
Purim 5750, my family gave the Rebbe mishloach manos through mazkirus. Purim that year was on a Sunday, and dollars took place after shacharis. When we went by, the Rebbe told each one of us (after giving each a second dollar) “adank far di shalach manos.”
What should bochurim today take from all of this?
The Rebbe looked out and continues looking out for each one of the chassidim, and cares about everything going on in our lives. If you write to the Rebbe you will see.
At a farbrengen some years ago, I was sitting with a few bochurim, stressing the importance of writing to the Rebbe. I said that when you write to the Rebbe, you will see that the Rebbe is with you and helping you out. A Bochur asked me what happens if you write and nothing happens. I said that won’t happen. A while later the bochur tells me that he was going through a certain situation, and after writing to the Rebbe, things were taken care of.
However many stories I have from before Gimmel Tammuz, I have from after as well. Whether as a bochur, eltere bochur, and until this very day at every step and every stage I write to the Rebbe and the Rebbe takes care of it. In every situation the Rebbe held my hand, holds my hand, and continues to hold the hand of every single chossid. We need to connect to the Rebbe, we need to write to the Rebbe, and you will see the Rebbe’s care on a day to day basis.
But the main thing is that Hashem should grant us that we should be able to see the Rebbe once again with our physical eyes.
Amen. Thank you Rabbi Scharf