Read a moving account of the Frierdiker Rebbe’s visit to Detroit during the Great Depression and the impact that it had on American Jewry.
By Anash.org staff
In 5690/1930, in the middle of the Great Depression which seized America, the Frierdiker Rebbe across the US arousing Yidden to Torah and Chinuch. Read this fascinating, firsthand account of the Rebbe’s visit to Detroit, by Mr. Isadore Starr a”h.
It was the winter of 1930 when someone brought the news to Shul. Some expressed disbelief, others asked, “What is he going to do here?” Most l listened with the puzzlement and anxiety in their face and eyes; others expressed open doubt.
“He doesn’t know America, he thinks he will make Yeshiva students of American boys. Too bad! He is destined for failure and frustration.”
The place was the Nusach H’Ari shul (synagogue) in Detroit, Michigan; the topic of discussion was the planned visit to the U.S.A. of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn of blessed memory.
America was in the midst of a great depression. Many were out of work and people had time to come to Shul. Attendance at the daily minyanim as well as at the Shabbos services was therefore larger than usual. The principal subject of discussion in the synagogue was naturally the Rebbe’s coming — for many of the congregants were of Lubavitch Chassidic stock, and besides, Rabbi Schneersohn was famous as one of the great leaders and sages of the times.
“Where is he now? When does he plan to arrive in United States? What is his itinerary?” All these were discussed with interest and enthusiasm.
In the Lubavitcher homes, too, conversation centered largely around the Rebbe’s coming.
Since my parents and my wife’s parents were both Lubavitcher followers, observant, and members of Nusach H’Ari, the anticipated arrival of the Rebbe in America was of cardinal interest to them. My father-in-law (Olov HaShalom) said, “Let us hope that everything will be for the best. ” My Father (Olav HaShalom) was extremely enthusiastic.
Rabbi Eskin, who was a frequent visitor to our home, and my father, had both reached the optimistic conclusion that the Rebbe’s coming “can’t possibly hurt”; indeed, perhaps it would have a beneficial effect on American Judaism and Jewry.
But I shall never forget the prophetic remarks of my saintly mother, may she rest in peace: “Things occur upside down. America should be coming to the Rebbe, instead the Rebbe is coming to America.” After a short pause, she continued, “But it is all right; if the Rebbe comes to America, America will come to him.”
At the time she made these remarks, no one seemed to place any weight in the words; time had to prove their profundity.
My father and Rabbi Eskin were discussing possible ways of arranging to see the Rebbe. Since no-one expected him to come to Detroit, seeing the Rebbe would mean a trip to Chicago — the nearest city where the Rabbi was expected. In the depression the travel cost was almost prohibitive.
The jubilation in our home when my father learned that the Rebbe coming to Detroit, is beyond description. He and Rabbi Eskin sat around the table and exchanged Mazel-Tovs. The general atmosphere, with the “shnapps” and cake and the serving of tea, was one of great festivity. Anyone who would have walked in would think that a family celebration was taking place — and in a way, it was!
In Shul a committee was formed to arrange for the Rebbe’s reception as well as to house the Rebbe and his entourage. My father and Rabbi Eskin decided that when the great day came they would go to Ann Arbor to meet the Rabbi. This college town, the seat of the University of Michigan, was the last stop on the rail trip from Chicago to Detroit; it is approximately forty miles from Detroit.
I remember them discussing the appropriateness of forty miles; it was somehow or other connected with the forty or Mem Sa ‘ahs, the minimum required quantity of water for a Kosher Mikveh. How the forty miles of meeting and the forty Sa’ahs of the Nikveh were related is something that I did not quite understand.
Finally, the Sunday of the Rebbe’s arrival dawned and, needless to say, excitement in our home and in Shul reached new heights. Everyone made sure of his arrangements for transportation to the Michigan Central Train Depot where the Rabbi was to arrive.
My father and Rabbi Eskin left early for Ann Arbor. For the rest of his life my father never tired of telling how they got on the train at Ann Arbor and met the Rebbe, introduced themselves , and informed him that they came to greet him and to usher him in to the city of Detroit, how the Rebbe gave them each a coin (I believe it was a half-dollar) as a memento.
The crowd that beleaguered Michigan Central Depot was many, many times the estimate of the police department. The entire neighborhood surrounding the Michigan Central Depot was not just filled with humanity — but overcrowded. The police present could not possibly cope with the crowd, if there would have been any problems. However, the crowd was extremely orderly. Finally, the Rebbe arrived with his committee.
When the crowd got the first glimpse of the Rebbe escorted by his committee, Chassidim, flanked by police, a sudden spontaneous “Baruch HaBa” (“Welcome and G-d bless you”) erupted from everyone’s mouth. This frightened the police somewhat, for they momentarily thought that trouble was brewing,
The Rabbi was ushered into a limousine and escorted by a police motorcycle escort to the Beth Tephila Emanuel Synagogue on Taylor and Woodrow Wilson, or as it was more popularly known, the “Taylor Street Shul.”
Two thousand people squeezed into the Shul — but four or five times that number remained outside! Everyone fought for a glimpse of the Rebbe. All of the Rabbis of the city were at the synagogue to greet the Rebbe, the press of Detroit, all the newspapers had reporters and photographers there. A Polish policeman, whom I knew, asked me, “Who is this man? He must be an awfully big man. I have never seen such a greeting and such admiration. I took the occasion to tell him, “He’s the greatest living Jewish leader.” The policeman’s response was, “He must be. “
The Rebbe spoke to the overflowing crowd and was very well received. The Rebbe was then led to his quarters on Euclid Avenue near Linwood where a spacious house was reserved for him and the people with him. Amongst the people with him were his young son-in-law Rabbi Gurary, Rabbi Feigin his secretary and the head of the Chabad Yeshiva in Israel.
Although the Rebbe did not receive any people that evening, the crowd was highly satisfied to listen to Torah discourses, and particularly to Chassidus delivered by Rabbi Feigin and others. The mood of all participants vas one of elation and jubilation.
The next morning this writer met with an unusual and extraordinary bit of luck. In view of the fact that the Rebbe did not speak English and a number of people who were to visit him did not speak Yiddish, I was chosen to act in the capacity of translator or interpreter between the Rebbe and the visitors. Thus, I was afforded the opportunity and great privilege of spending a portion of each day of that week in the company of the Rebbe.
On one occasion, when there was a lull in the steady march of visitors seeking audience with the Rebbe, the Rebbe suddenly addressed me and unexpectedly asked me, “What is the condition Of Taharas HaMishpacha (the observance of Family Purity laws, with Mikveh-immersion etc.) in Detroit?”
The question stunned and embarrassed me. I decided to tell the whole truth, and I explained that this was America, not Europe, and women had access to modern sanitation and hygiene facilities. How could one persuade them to use an old-fashioned Mikveh?!
To my utter amazement, the Rebbe answered, “You are right. I will see that you receive a pamphlet in English with the medical reasons and benefits that flow from Mikveh and Taharas HaMishpacha.” Four or five weeks later (after I had forgotten the Rebbe’s remarks), I indeed received a package sent from New York containing large brochures on the subject written by an M.D.
During the week I spent a great deal of time in the company and presence of the Rebbe. I do not know what kind of a Z’chus (merit) I had to deserve the extreme pleasure and privilege of spending a week in the close company of the Rebbe but, certainly, I shall never forget the wonderful and inspiring experience.
I was also thrilled by some of the people who were with the Rebbe. Rabbi Feigin was an unusual personality. Kind, scholarly, considerate, and completely devoted to the Rebbe’s interest and health.
Minyanim were held every morning and every evening in the residence of the Rebbe. Lectures on Chassidus flowed in a constant stream. One incident that made a great impression upon me was the service on Shabbos morning when I came upon a Chassid completely wrapped ina Tallis, sitting in a chair and davening. The niggun, or tune, that he used in the prayer was different than any I had heard before. It was fascinating and mesmerizing; it seemed to come from another world. Never before had I heard such fascinating devotion; I said then “This is what is meant by really praying.”
There were many Chassidim and visitors who spent every day, all day, at the Rebbe’s headquarters. The constant visitors included my father and myself — because of the capacity assigned to me.
A number of incidents occurred during the week, some of which deserve mention: A certain individual wanted to receive the Rebbe as a guest in his home. He was from a family of Lubavitcher Chassidim and claimed that at one time he had gone to Cheder with the Rebbe. He said that he would contribute a very large sum to the Rebbe’s causes in appreciation of having the Rebbe as his guest. He started with an offer of $25,000. When he saw that that did not produce immediate results, he raised the offer again and again, until he finally proposed donating no less than $100,000, an absolute fortune in those depression days.
The committee advised the Rebbe of the invitation and the offer that went along with it. The Rebbe thought for a few minutes and then said that he could not possibly accept the offer. He explained that there were many people of less wealth who perhaps were much more deserving and more entitled to a visit. To have a man receive the honor simply because he could offer a large sum or money would be morally unjustified. If the man were truly interested in the work of Chabad and desired to support it – he should make the contribution, and the Rebbe would certainly send a letter of appreciation.
This amount of money could have established at once, the Yeshiva which the Rebbe determined to open. “Big money” can accomplish a great deal in the rest of the world, but in Chabad principle stands higher.
Throughout the week, hundreds of visitors came to see the Rebbe. Some just wished to have the honor of seeing and speaking to him; still others had various problems for which they wished to receive the Rebbe’s blessing and advice.
I remember one woman who insisted that the Rebbe simply “tell” her son to recover and be well. The Rebbe received her with kindness, sympathy and exercised a great deal of patience, and finally told her that he was not a “miracle worker” nor a magician, but that his ancestors were Tzaddikim, saintly people who had gone on to their eternal reward. He told her that he could only pray that the Al-mighty help her son he could call upon his ancestors to intercede as much as they were able; he could hope that their standing in the world would have some influence so that his prayers would be granted, but that was all. His last words to her were, “I shall pray to G-d to help you and your son.” Whether the lady was impressed is something I cannot tell — but I was deeply impressed.
A great highlight of the visit was the unexpected appearance one morning of the Rebbe in the Nusach H ‘Ari Shul, then on Linwood Avenue. The Rebbe’s unexpected appearance took everyone by surprise. We rose in respect spontaneously. The Rebbe extended his hand to each one and asked them to be seated.
He started to talk to them about the economic conditions and the deplorable fact that people who were willing and able to work could not find employment. The surprise in their faces bespoke their amazement at the Rebbe’s thorough understanding of the economic situation. The Rebbe told them not to despair, G-d would help. This is but a temporary condition, America would return to its prosperity. The people were obviously comforted.
There was a pause. Then the Rebbe started to speak again slowly in his characteristic low voice. “I am glad to see you in Shul. Stick to the Shul (“Haalt Zich”). Stick to the Torah and stick to each other.”
Then he elaborated, “In Shul you will feel close to G-d; if you study you will have the feeling that your time is not being wasted; if a man can study a Blatt Gemorah (a page of the Talmud), very good; if he can study a Perek Mishnayos (a chapter of Mishna), very good; if he can only study a Parsha Chumash with Rashi (Hebrew scriptures with commentary) — still very good. And if nothing else certainly you can say a Kappitel Tehillim (a chapter of Psalms), and that, too, is very important. “
Then he added, “Even if you just sit together: and eat a piece of herring with a baked potato or “make a Shnapps” and wish each other “L’ Chayim” and maintain a friendship and a friendly spirit between each other — that , too, is worshipping G-d. The Mitzva of V’Ahavta Lerei’acha Komoicha (Love Your Fellow as yourself) is an ikar, a cardinal principle, in Torah and the observance of it is of extreme importance.”
It was spoken in his low voice but with overwhelming conviction, and one would have to see the faces of the people to realize and appreciate the deep impression it made upon them.
* * *
The Rebbe left Detroit, but the impression he made lingered on. Even the skeptics who were so certain, before his coming, that he could accomplish nothing, were silenced. Now they were not quile so certain of the uselessness of his coming. Somehow things were different. His stay was the subject of conversation for many weeks thereafter.
The next time I saw the Rebbe was in New York. I went to the dedication of the first Lubavitch Yeshiva on Dean and Bedford Street. As I stood and watched the tremendous crowd, as I watched the jubilation of the multitude in reaction to the Rebbe’s talk, I could not help but think that this was different from anything I had previously witnessed anywhere in this country.
Thousands of Jews were stirred in their interest in Chinuch (Torah education) and the need to provide Yeshivas, places of study and learning for American children and young people. My mother’s words suddenly came to life, and acquired new significance; “If the Rebbe will come to America, America will come to him.” America did come to the Rebbe and continued to come to him.
In closing, let me not overlook the greatest gift of all with which the Previous Rebbe blessed American Jewry, that is, he gave us the present Rebbe , may he live and be healthy until the coming of Moshiach. He has continued to carry out the work and enlarge the sphere and scope of the work that was started by his predecessors. America has come to him in greater and greater numbers.
Now, the world has begun to come to the Rebbe. Let us hope and pray that this will continue until the world truly merits the coming of Mashiach, and we will have the privilege of following our Rebbe to meet and greet Mashiach Tzidkainu Bimhaira B’yamainu, our righteous Mashiach (Messiah) speedily in our days.