Building a Country

By Derher Magazine

Seeing the Frierdiker Rebbe

I was born on 1 Elul 5696/1936 in Dokshitz, a well known Chassidic town (I am an only child). As soon as World War II broke out, we miraculously immigrated to the United States, where we were initially hosted by Reb Yochanan Gordon, also of Dokshitz. Then my father was hired by a shul in Cincinnati to be a rov and shochet, and seven years later he held a similar job for the Bnei Yaakov Nusach Ari shul of Worcester, MA. A short time before my bar mitzvah, my parents sent me to learn in Tomchei Temimim on Bedford and Dean, in Brooklyn, New York. A year later, my parents joined me in Crown Heights (the phone companies had been thriving on our phone bills), and that’s where I lived until we went on shlichus to Brazil.

Together with my father, I merited to have a yechidus with the Frierdiker Rebbe before my bar mitzvah, several months before his histalkus (that was the only time I saw him; we youngsters weren’t allowed to participate in the farbrengens). It was difficult to understand the Frierdiker Rebbe’s speech, so Reb Elye Simpson, the Frierdiker Rebbe’s secretary, repeated the Rebbe’s bracha to us. The Frierdiker Rebbe also sent me a mazal tov letter before my bar mitzvah, and he signed with the print letter “Yud” at the beginning of his name, as he did throughout the last year before the histalkus.  

A Special Phone Conversation

 Some time after the Frierdiker Rebbe’s histalkus, the Rebbe returned to wearing his regular jacket and hat, but nevertheless, we all knew where things were headed. I was still a young boy, but I clearly remember the talk of how to convince the Rebbe to assume the nesius. At some point during the year, we insisted that people cease using the term “Ramash,” and call him only, “Rebbe.”

The crowds in 770 were very small, and we all received the Rebbe’s personal attention. The Rebbe would farbreng each Shabbos Mevorchim, and we all fit into the small zal comfortably.

During that year, I once came home to Worcester and discovered that my mother needed a serious operation. Before the procedure, the Rebbe personally called our home and spoke to my parents and to me as well. He instructed me to recite the kapitel Tehillim of the Frierdiker Rebbe for my mother’s recovery (he had spoken about reciting the kapitel in sichos as well).


 Our Relationship

I learned in Bedford and Dean until 5715*, and then I moved to 770.

We felt a very close connection to the Rebbe in those days. Nonetheless, we didn’t write to the Rebbe often. There was a powerful yiras haromemus, and we felt uncomfortable to take the Rebbe’s time.

I recall one instance where I did write to the Rebbe. At that time, my father served as the rabbi of Chevra Shas in Crown Heights, and one of his congregants was a modern individual who came from a family of rabbonim. I resolved to speak to him and to encourage him to strengthen his Yiddishkeit, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I wrote to the Rebbe, and the Rebbe responded immediately. The Rebbe said to explain to him the teaching from Hayom Yom, מען ווען אקערט און מען פארזייט – וואקסט. In other words, if he wanted to receive Hashem’s blessings, he needed to create a vessel for the blessing.

Each year, we had a yechidus with the Rebbe before our birthday. The yechidus would last two or three minutes. Being an only child, sometimes my father would join me in yechidus, and those would last a bit longer.

One year, when we were learning Maseches Gittin, the Rebbe spoke to us about the deeper meaning of Gittin; that the Jewish people are considered the wife of the Aibershter. The Rebbe explained the matter in avodas Hashem.

I have an interesting memory from another yechidus. As I was waiting in line, the individual before me said that he came to receive the Rebbe’s approval for a book he had written. He left the Rebbe’s room in amazement. In 20 minutes, he told me, the Rebbe recapped the exact thesis of his book, which had taken him five years to develop.

When I was 17 years old, I had my tonsils removed. Although it was a relatively simple and safe procedure, the Rebbe asked my mother to notify him as soon as it concluded. I remember my mother racing down Eastern Parkway from the doctor’s office to 770 to notify the Rebbe.

Some time later, I suffered from strong headaches. For two months, I didn’t want to bother the Rebbe about it, but as the problem persisted, I decided to write to the Rebbe asking for a bracha. It was shortly before Pesach. During kos shel bracha on Acharon Shel Pesach, the Rebbe gave me a powerful bracha, and miraculously, the headaches disappeared. In fact, the miracle grew even larger: I was accustomed to wearing eyeglasses in the street, but afterwards, I felt that I no longer needed them. Baruch Hashem, until today the Rebbe’s bracha continues.


There Will Be a Change…

My years in 770 were before the Rebbe announced the mivtzoim which are so famous today, but the Rebbe nevertheless spoke incessantly about spreading Yiddishkeit. Those were the days when the Rebbe first began speaking about Ufaratzta.

As bochurim, we all participated in Wednesday hour (the Released Time program for public school children), Mesibos Shabbos, Merkos Shlichus and so on. We also knew that after our marriage, we hoped to become the Rebbe’s shluchim and continue the Rebbe’s work for the rest of our lives.

On 17 Kislev 5721*, I married my first wife, Esther (nee Kazen) a”h.

She merited to attend to the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana, in various ways, so through my wife, I also had the opportunity to visit her. After we left to Brazil, we merited to receive two letters from her in her own handwriting.

We hoped that the Rebbe would bemesader kiddushin at our wedding. By then the Rebbe no longer officiated at all weddings, but if a couple committed to go on shlichus, the Rebbe usually did agree. Before our wedding we went into yechidus, and there the Rebbe informed us that, “S’vet zein a shinui in di siddur kiddushin, there will be a change regarding officiating weddings.”

I immediately understood—to my dismay—that the Rebbe had decided to cease siddur kiddushin entirely, and I plucked up the courage to say, “But we are going on shlichus…”

In response, the Rebbe said something very powerful.

“Tzu den darf ich shteyen unter di shtangen kidei tzu benchen? Do I need to stand under the poles [of the chupah] in order to bless you?”


Pointy Shoes

On Shvi’i Shel Pesach 5721*, shortly after our wedding, the tahalucha went to Williamsburg. We were a crowd of some 200 yungerleit. After we crossed Eastern Parkway, my attention was caught by a man leaning against the wall. He was clearly Jewish, but his clothing were peculiar; he had pointy shoes, which weren’t the style then.

I approached him, wished him a Gut Yom Tov, and asked him where he was from.

“Brazil,” he answered.

“What are you doing here?”

 “I’m on business.”

Although he wasn’t fully observant, he wasn’t working that day, so I offered him to join us on our walk to Williamsburg. He joined us, watched the dancing and the speaking in the shuls, and afterwards I brought him to my home for the seudah.

He was a warm Jew, and very touched by everything he had seen that day. We had a conversation late into the night.

“Would you be willing to move to Brazil?” he asked us at the conclusion.

I explained that we don’t make these decisions, but that I would write to the Rebbe about it after Yom Tov. After Yom Tov I wrote to the Rebbe, and very quickly, the Rebbe responded in the affirmative.

At the same time, he asked me if he was allowed to ask the Rebbe a question as well. I responded that he was more than welcome to, so he wrote to the Rebbe about his dilemma. He and his wife weren’t blessed with children, and they were thinking about adoption. It was very rare to find a Jewish child available for adoption, but he managed to find a little girl, and he asked the Rebbe if he should go along with the plan. The Rebbe said that he should.

Several weeks after adopting the girl, an elderly rich man passed away, and his sole heir was this little girl. As her legal father, he suddenly found himself with newfound riches, and he moved to New York. Meanwhile, we moved to Brazil.

Thirty years later, I walked into 770 for the Kinus Hashluchim, and lo and behold, I see this individual.

We hugged and kissed, and he related that a short time after he adopted his daughter, his wife became pregnant with a son. Through a series of events, they had grown much closer to the Rebbe, and the son was now a shliach himself. He had brought along his father for the Kinus Hashluchim.


The Closed Blinds

Our flight was set for 5 Av 5721*.

We had two yechidusen before our departure, and on Shabbos, 2 Av, the Rebbe held a farbrengen. During the farbrengen the Rebbe said a short maamar on the topic of Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven, but at the end, he suddenly spoke about the importance of shlichus in faraway places.

“Unlike those who mistakenly want to remain in their own daled amos, and don’t want to travel to distant places. One must know that although it is easier to remain in your own daled amos, it is nevertheless not the tachlis hakavana, the ultimate purpose. Hashem’s will is that you go to a distant shlichus and spread the wellsprings of Chassidus there.”

That last paragraph wasn’t directly connected to the maamar, and we understood that it was a farewell to us. In the sicha following the maamar, the Rebbe spoke about it once again.

In those years, there was a special ritual to see off a couple going on shlichus. On the way to the airport, the shluchim would stop off in front of 770, and the bochurim would come out of the zal to dance and see you off. During the dancing, the Rebbe would pick up the blinds of the window in his room about a third of the way up.

When we came to 770 before our departure, the Rebbe did not pick up the blinds. Everyone thought it to be very strange. The Rebbe had given us two yechidusen before our trip, and there was no doubt that the Rebbe wanted us to go. Slightly disappointed, we left for the airport.

The first leg of our journey, to Caracas, Venezuela, was on a Belgian airline. We sat down ready for take-off, but the plane didn’t move. After some time, the pilot apologized and said that one of the engines had burned out, and it would take another 48 hours to receive a replacement from Brussels. We were told to go home and return two days later.

On Tuesday, before returning to the airport, we again stopped off to say farewell at 770. This time, the Rebbe opened the blinds.


No Conflict

 We arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Thursday, 7 Av. We immediately got to work.

During our yechidus before we left, the Rebbe gave me an interesting directive. He said there are already two anash families living in Brazil. Whenever they do an initiative together, I should participate as well. However, if one family does something without the other, I should have no part in it.

In those days, there was no concept of a Beis Chabad. We knew that we were sent to a location to strengthen Yiddishkeit, and that was all. I became the principal of a small Jewish school in Rio, as well as the rabbi of the small shul located on its premises. My wife taught all day at the school in addition to helping at the shul. They paid us a very small salary.

Brazil was very primitive in those days. It would be another five years before a phone was installed in our home, and until then, everything was done through written correspondence. I wrote a report to the Rebbe every Sunday morning, and I would receive letters back every two or three weeks. Some of those letters were only two lines, sometimes just acknowledging my report, but I always received something. Whenever I came to New York, I would converse lengthily. Later, I would converse with Rabbi Hodakov about various matters.

Two and a half years after we arrived, the Rebbe instructed us to move to S. Paulo. The letter caught us by surprise, but obviously, we packed up and moved. In S. Paulo, I began to work in the largest religious day school, and within a few years, I became the principal.

In this day school, there was a group of children in “Cheder.” They learned limudei kodesh on a higher level than the rest of the school. Now, there were several parents who insisted that we teach Gemara in Yiddish only. This was obviously a challenge: the Gemara itself was difficult enough, and Yiddish was entirely foreign to them. I felt it would be counterproductive.

When I visited New York, I told the Rebbe about the situation, and the Rebbe said that we should use the language that brings the best results. When I returned to Brazil, I switched the language to Portuguese, and Baruch Hashem, we saw immediate results. There is a lamdan in Eretz Yisroel that still thanks me today, because the switch allowed him to finally enjoy the classes, and they were the impetus for his real growth in Yiddishkeit.

Part two to follow.

Photos taken from library of Agudas Chasidei Chabad.

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