In the latest issue of Hanochos magazine, Rabbi Shmuel Chaim Scharf Mashpia in Chicago Mesivta, shares the special kiruvim he received as a child by the Rebbe.
Rabbi Scharf, the other week we spoke with your brother about the special kiruvim he experienced. Can you share some more of these unique stories?
It was very special for me to read my brother’s article. It was very refreshing to read the details he remembers; the way he recalls precisely the dates and years and what happened when.
Although I was younger — and so I don’t recall the dates and years as precisely — I’d like to add some stories and anecdotes that I remember, which were not included in my brother’s article. Some of these pertain to me in particular. I must note that since I was quite young at the time, certain details might lack accuracy.
The special kiruvim the Rebbe gave to your family are quite remarkable!
That’s one thing that I want to clarify before I start. While it is indeed true that we merited to experience very special kiruvim from the Rebbe, nevertheless the obvious needs to be made clear: These kiruvim are all expressions of the closeness of the Rebbe to chassidim, and the Rebbe is this close to all chassidim equally. The Rebbe cares about every single chossid — without any differentiation. The only perceivable difference is whether this closeness was expressed in overt, observable ways. Perhaps certain people, who needed them, were given such kiruvim by the Rebbe. Perhaps since our father passed away, the Rebbe expressed this special care to us openly, or perhaps it was for whatever other reason. But in the essence of the Rebbe’s being, this special care and concern is something the Rebbe has to every single chossid.
This is true today as well, and it’s important for bochurim to realize that. So this is not my story. This is our story
These are definitely words to be taken to heart. How old were you when your father passed away?
I was 6 years old at the time, and — as my brother said so perfectly — the feeling was that we were always being cared for. It’s very important to point out that there was an awesome kedushadike power which emanated from the Rebbe. This is something no video can ever portray. You can’t film eloikus. Even one tenua was enough to encourage and uplift a person — let alone many tenuos. The attention we received had a powerful effect.
To illustrate this point, I’d like to share one of my earliest memories, from the Tzivos Hashem rally on Chol Hamoed Sukkos 5750. My brother Mendel was called up to say “Yechi”. He then sang “We Want Moshiach Now,” as the seder always was. Suddenly, the Rebbe motioned with his holy hand that Sholom’ke and I should go up and join him on the microphone. We were suddenly being carried up to the bima with Mendel, and we sang. The Rebbe looked at us carefully. Even after we finished singing, the Rebbe followed us with his eyes until we got to our spot.
The Rebbe was pulling us into a new reality.
Were there other such experiences that stand out?
One day during the winter of 5750 while we were still saying Kaddish, I wasn’t feeling well and I didn’t go to school. Instead I came to 770 for Shacharis to say Kaddish. This is the only time that I can remember standing by the Rebbe and saying Kaddish alone, without my other brothers.
Kedusha came, and the Rebbe was taking three steps back to his shtender as he always would. As the chazan was saying the words “(Boruch atah Hashem), mechaye hameisim,” I noticed the Rebbe looking at me, and suddenly the Rebbe motioned to me with a wave of his hand in encouragement. I was a yasom, and this took place only a few months after my father passed away. Out of the blue, while the words “mechaye hameisim” were being said, the Rebbe gave me this sign of encouragement. I remember feeling how the Rebbe was being mechazek me in my situation, with such a heilike empowerment.
Were there other such times that the Rebbe communicated with you during davening?
One Shabbos, when they opened the Aron Kodesh and everyone was saying Shema Yisroel, I was standing together with my brothers as usual, and I was pointing in the siddur with my younger brother Sholom’ke, helping him say Shema Yisroel and Echod Eloikeinu with everyone. Suddenly I looked up, and I saw the Rebbe watching us with a gaze of satisfaction. In my mind then, I understood that the Rebbe was happy that I was helping out my younger brother daven, or perhaps, more generally, that we were involved during davening. That look from the Rebbe was very powerful; really focusing on us in such a deep way.
You know, there are many things that fathers teach to their children. They bring them to shul, teaching them how to daven and behave appropriately, and they sit with them in shul. We didn’t have a father to do those things for us, and to some extent the Rebbe did this for us.
What do you mean by saying that the Rebbe taught you how to behave appropriately?
The Rebbe taught my brothers and I to answer “Amen, yehei shmei rabba” during Kaddish. When the chazzan would say Kaddish, the Rebbe would turn to us and say together with us — at our slow pace — “Amen, yehei shmei rabba.” This was something that would happen at many tefillos. People always ask me, “Did you ever speak to the Rebbe?” or “Did you ever go into the Rebbe’s room?” but really, in my opinion, one of the strongest kiruvim we would get from the Rebbe was this constant focus on us during Kaddish, teaching us to respond to the chazzan. The Rebbe was — so to speak — taking the place of our father, and he would do it over and over again.
Were there other instances of the Rebbe teaching you how to behave in shul?
In 770, back in those days, it was sometimes hard to find a siddur. I remember my mother always telling us as soon as she would drop us off that we should quickly go get a siddur. But at times there weren’t enough, and some would need to daven from memory.
Once, when the Rebbe davened Maariv upstairs in the small zal, as he would sometimes do even in those years, neither my brothers nor myself managed to find a siddur. So we stood there at our place waiting for the Rebbe to come in and the minyan to start, and we planned on davening by heart.
Upon entering, the Rebbe immediately noticed that we didn’t have siddurim. The Rebbe motioned to us and then instructed Rabbi Leibel Groner to get us a siddur. As there weren’t any in the zal, Rabbi Groner gave us his personal “Mincha-Maariv” for us to daven from. I remember how all three of us crowded over the little siddur. The Rebbe was teaching us that davening should always be from inside a siddur.
Aside for these two examples, there is also the story my brother told over in his interview of how the Rebbe taught us how to behave during Krias Hatorah, when he looked at us pointedly while we were talking. I remember that look the Rebbe gave us then. It was the only time I remember the Rebbe giving me a stern look. The Rebbe was educating us.
Until today, my brothers and I try to be very careful about these three hora’os: To answer Kaddish, to daven from a siddur and to be silent during Krias Hatorah.
You mentioned that you were davening in the upstairs zal. Would you also stand near the Rebbe when you davened there?
Yes. In fact, when the Rebbe would daven upstairs we would be even closer to the Rebbe. Downstairs, we would stand between the Rebbe’s Bima and the chazzan’s shtender, but upstairs we would sit right near the Rebbe’s table without being separated by a bima. There were times that we were very close downstairs as well, as my brother pointed out, on Simchas Torah we would stand on the Rebbe’s bima right near the Rebbe.
What do you remember about the Rebbe’s hakafos?
For the first and last hakafos, which were the Rebbe’s, the Rebbe would go to the middle of the Shul, and being a little boy, I wasn’t able to see at all. As soon as the Rebbe left his place it became full of chassidim and I couldn’t see anything. I remember a certain bochur felt bad for me and so he picked me up so that I would be able to see, but I still didn’t manage to see the Rebbe. But all the other hakafos I was standing right near the Rebbe and so I remember them much more vividly. The energy by hakafos was so intense. We were being lifted up to a realm where nothing exists other than that heilige moment. It is impossible to describe. No video — even had there been one — could possibly have captured what it was like.
When I sing the niggunim we sang by the Rebbe, they send me straight back to those times. They captured the moment and I identify hakafos with them. They evoke such nostalgia.
As a bochur, sometimes when I would want to reminisce and relive those special times, I would go into a room by myself and just sing those niggunim that we sang by hakafos. They would bring me right back to the moment. Until today, they always awaken within me the awesome atmosphere of being by the Rebbe.
Did you and your brothers experience kiruvim that did not take place in public? Can you share them with us?
We never went into the Rebbe’s room per se, but there were various kiruvim that took place away from the public eye. After my father passed away, my mother sent our mezuzos to be checked. We found that the kashrus of one of them was questionable. The sofer told my mother to ask a rov about the kashrus of that mezuzah. My mother wrote to the Rebbe about it and added that she didn’t have a rov to ask. The Rebbe responded that we should get all new mezuzos and we should try to get the Alter Rebbe’s ksav. We would also receive a hadas each year from the Rebbe before Sukkos: Rabbi Leibel Groner would inform us that the Rebbe instructed that we should come pick one up from his office.
Then there were the letters that we would write to the Rebbe, for which we would always receive a response — and not always the maanos that were standard in those years.
There were a few times that the Rebbe wrote specifically about me, and those mean a lot to me, of course.
What can you share with us about the maanos you received?
I can share one. It was the summer of 5750, less than a year after my father had passed away, and one night I had a very scary dream. I was only 6 or 7 years old at the time. The next night I had the same dream, and the next night as well. I started to become very scared, and I was afraid to go to sleep at night.
I told my mother what was bothering me, and she suggested that I write to the Rebbe. I sat down — I still remember for whatever reason I wrote the letter sitting on the floor — and I told the Rebbe what was bothering me. I went on to describe the dream, and then I drew a picture of what the dream looked like, and I asked the Rebbe a bracha.
The Rebbe answered back
ארז”ל דחלומות שווא ידברו. מזמן לזמן (ובש”ק?) יאמר הקאפיטעל תהילים שלו. אזכיר עה”צ.
“Raza”l teach that dreams speak falsehood.” The Rebbe then instructed that I should say my kapitel tehillim. The Rebbe gave me a personal instruction to say my kapitel. Having a daily personal connection to the Rebbe like that is very special to me. Growing up, I would always keep this to myself as my little secret, and only upon rare occasions I might have shared with some close friends that I received a direct personal instruction from the Rebbe.
Every day, when I say my kapitel, I am fulfilling a personal directive the Rebbe gave directly to me. I think about this until today.
That maaneh must have been very encouraging. Do you remember when you heard the Rebbe’s answer?
Yes. My mother always made sure that when the Rebbe would give us an answer it would be a moment we would remember. She would gather us all together and tell us the Rebbe’s answer.
Also, after every chalukah of dollars or kuntreisim, we would each hold on to our dollar or kuntres very dearly until we got home. There we would all sit around the table and we would each have a turn to inscribe the our name and the date on the dollar or kuntres. These get-togethers made a strong impact on us. They really made us recognize how significant it was that we received something personally from the Rebbe.
Did the Rebbe ever say anything to you?
There was once that the Rebbe told me “Yasher koach” after I held the door of the elevator open for the Rebbe.
The Rebbe would come down for Mincha and Maariv with the elevator. The elevator downstairs has a metal door in front of the elevator’s automatic door. There were a few children who would rotate between themselves the z’chus to hold that door open for the Rebbe. I remember that one day, one of those boys came over to me and told me that that day could be my turn to hold the door open for the Rebbe.
I was a young boy, and the door was heavy, so I practiced opening the door a few times so that I would do the job properly when the Rebbe would come down.
When the Rebbe came for the minyan, I opened the door. the Rebbe walked out, looked at me, I found myself so close — face-to-face with the Rebbe. It’s one of the most vivid memories I have of the Rebbe’s heilige ponim. The Rebbe then told me “Yasher koach.” The Rebbe telling me “Yasher koach” made me very excited. I recall telling friends afterwards how the Rebbe told me those words.
Did you hold the elevator door other times as well?
No; that was the only time that I did it. I didn’t want to do it again, because, as I said, the door was a heavy metal door, and I was worried that it would slip out of my hands when the Rebbe would be coming out. Even at that time, when I held it open, I was so frightened that it would slip from my grasp.
Additionally, holding the door open would mean that I would only walk into the shul behind the Rebbe. My place for davening was right next to the Rebbe’s shtender, and so I would always come in first to be there when the Rebbe would come in. Holding the door open wouldn’t allow me to be there first.
Were there other times that the Rebbe said something to you?
My brother told the story about the time the Rebbe thanked each of us when we gave him mishloach manos on Purim 5750. I actually remember preparing the mishloach manos before Purim. We all participated, and we were very excited about it.
That year, Purim was on Sunday and we went for dollars. First Sholom’ke got a dollar. He started walking away and the Rebbe handed another dollar so he was called back. The Rebbe gave it to him and said, “A dank far di shalach monos.” I was so touched and excited that the Rebbe was acknowledging the shalach manos. Then the Rebbe handed me a dollar. I wasn’t sure whether the Rebbe would hand me an extra dollar and a thank you as well — of course I was hoping so, but I felt uncomfortable standing there as if I expected it, so I continued walking. I was so happy when I was called back. The Rebbe gave me a dollar and said, “A dank far di shalach monos.” It was so special.
I also remember telling the Rebbe about my upcoming birthday. The Rebbe gave me an extra dollar and said in English, “Happy year”. This was despite the fact that I spoke to the Rebbe in Yiddish.
My brother mentioned the story how the rebbe asked him — also in English — “Where is your sister?” I’m not sure why the Rebbe spoke to us at these occasions in English, as we always spoke to the Rebbe in Yiddish.
That reminds me of the time the Rebbe gave my mother an extra dollar and said — also in English — “For your fine children.”
During davening, you stood by the Rebbe’s place. What would you do during the sichos?
We would stay there by our place when the Rebbe said the sichos. However, being young children, we weren’t able to follow and understand what the Rebbe was saying. So my brother Sholom’ke and I would have an “activity” we would do during the sichos. We would count how many times the Rebbe said certain words. During the famous sicha of 28 Nissan 5751, when the Rebbe spoke strongly about bringing Moshiach, the Rebbe also mentioned himself a few times during the Sicha. I remember that my brother and I were doing our usual activity counting the words, when suddenly we heard the Rebbe say “Ich” – “I,” and then we heard it again; I think a total of three times.
Now, this was a word that we weren’t used to hearing from the Rebbe, as the Rebbe would very rarely talk about himself, and suddenly we were hearing it a few times during one sicha! We realized right then that something must be going on and this sicha must be different than all others. I always note how amazing that is that throughout all the times we heard the Rebbe speak, we never heard the Rebbe say “ich.”
How did things continue after 27 Adar?
I want to first share something about the last shabbos before 27 Adar. It is very difficult for me to share, but chassidim have told me that anything that could possibly inspire others must be told over.
Every single Shabbos at the farbrengen — usually after the first sicha — the Rebbe would give Sholom’ke a piece of cake, or challah on yom tov. This would happen every single week without exception. We almost depended on it: to us, it was our validation of the week.
On Shabbos, 25 Adar 5752 — which was the last farbrengen as of now — we were at the farbrengen as usual, and the Rebbe said the first sicha. It was a much longer sicha than usual. The sicha finished, but this time the Rebbe didn’t give Sholom’ke a piece of cake. The second sicha finished, and the Rebbe still didn’t give the piece of cake. We were getting very worried. Receiving the cake would mean so much to us. Back then, I didn’t even pay attention to the fact that it was always given to Sholom’ke — it was for all of us.
We kept hoping the moment would come, but the farbrengen came to a close, and the Rebbe started calling up those who would receive bottles of mashke. At this point we couldn’t handle it any more and so we started crying. My brother Mendel told me later that he cried loud because he wanted that the Rebbe should hear us. He then tried to hold out Sholom’ke’s hand, but it was to no avail. The farbrengen was over, Mincha started, and we had not received the cake.
What can I say … we were devastated. This was the first time in two-and-a-half years that this had happened.
Two days later, on Monday, 27 Adar, we came to 770 for Mincha and Maariv as usual, and a bochur came in to shul and announced that everyone should say Tehillim. Then we heard what had happened to the Rebbe.
When we got home, my mother said that now we can understand what happened on Shabbos. She said that the Rebbe was preparing us for what was coming. The Rebbe wanted us to know that everything is planned, and that not always will we be able to receive a piece of cake.
Lately I was telling the story to a friend, and he told me that he felt that the Rebbe was preparing us for the period in which we are now. The Rebbe was teaching us that there will come a time that you will be able to be right near the Rebbe, and yet you will not experience giluyim. You will cry, you will not have any giluyim, you will not have a piece of cake, but the Rebbe is saying, “Don’t worry. I am here with you.” Just like at the farbrengen we didn’t get the cake, but the Rebbe was right there, so too it is today. And this is where we are now. Hopefully, we’re now at the end. Whatever purpose there could have been must definitely already have been accomplished in these 25 years.
Did any of the kiruvim continue in a revealed manner after 27 adar?
I remember that some time after 27 Adar, we got a message that Rabbi Chodakov wanted to speak to us. We went to his house behind 770, and my brother Mendel went into the house while we waited in the car. Rabbi Chodakov proceeded to tell my brother that if there was anything we ever needed we should come over to him and he would be there for us.
This is what happened back then, but only recently did we find out the rest of the story. In our mesivta there are some great-grandchildren of Rabbi Chodakov. Earlier this year, their father, Rabbi Kramer, who is Rabbi Chodakov’s grandson, came to visit mesivta. As we were speaking, he asked me if I remembered the time when Rabbi Chodakov wanted to speak to us after 27 Adar. As it turns out, Rabbi Kramer was very close with his grandfather and had happened to be in his office when my brother came in. After my brother left, Rabbi Kramer asked his grandfather to explain why he had offered to take care of us. Rabbi Chodakov replied that he had seen that the Rebbe always took us under his wing, and constantly took care of us, so now, after 27 Adar, he felt that he wanted to continue to make sure we were being cared for.
Did this come from the Rebbe?
It’s possible that the Rebbe had asked Rabbi Chodakov to take care of us, but there’s no way to know.
One thing is certain: From our perspective, nothing at all had changed. We would continue coming to 770 for Maariv every single day, just like we did before. We would go to our place in the front of the shul, just as we had been doing before. After the second 27 Adar, my mother would drive us to the hospital each day after school was out to daven maariv by the Rebbe. This continued until Gimmel Tammuz, and then we would continue as well — coming each day to the Ohel to daven Maariv. So we went from 770, to the hospital, to the Ohel. and now we’re waiting to go back again to 770.
With Hashem’s help, let it be already, ub’karov mamash.
Bochurim need to know that all of this isn’t part of the past. We can still be connected to the Rebbe and have stories from the Rebbe just like before Gimmel Tammuz. There’s a certain story from after Gimmel Tammuz that I wouldn’t per se like to share publicly, but I feel it’s important to bring out this nekuda.
In the summer of 5766, I went on Merkos Shlichus, and my chavrusa and I decided that we would write a letter to the Rebbe each day reporting our activities. We did so every single day, and we would fax it to the Ohel, which could cost five dollars per fax.
After two weeks of being on shlichus, we met enough people and we decided to organize a Shabbos for them. We got to work, and it was a lot to prepare. On Thursday night we were so overwhelmed with all the work that we didn’t manage to write our daily letter to the Rebbe. Shabbos was an incredible success, but we were tired, and I remember telling my chavrusa that I’m so tired and that I just can’t write, and we’ll make it up on Sunday. Sunday came, but again we were very busy and we pushed it off till Monday.
Monday evening — on 24 Tammuz — on the way back from meeting a Yid, we got into a major accident. Our car rolled over and I suffered some injuries, but boruch Hashem our lives were spared. At the hospital, while we were waiting for the results of the tests, I wrote a letter to the Rebbe reporting about the accident.
A week later, on Sunday 29 Tammuz, we got back to New York, and we headed straight to the Ohel. I sat down and started learning Chitas and Rambam from a Dvar Malchus. Suddenly, I saw a letter on the bottom of the page dated 29 Tammuz, in which the Rebbe begins by writing, “In response to your letter from the 24th of Tammuz, it’s a shame that you delayed writing until something negative transpired.” The Rebbe went on to write that, “you should have written letters when there were happy tidings, and that way you would have been able to minimize in writing letters of the other type.”
Needless to say, I was in utter shock, as this was the exact situation and experience that I had just endured. It was like the Rebbe was telling me personally how important it is to write.
Der Rebbe lebt, and it’s only up to us to tap in.
Thank you Rabbi Scharf. That was unbelievable!