My Walking Partner

Rabbi Sheldon Rudoff, an attorney who held leadership positions in the OU, UJA-Federation, and Yeshiva University, tells of his walks with the Rebbe in the early years.

Here’s My Story

Rabbi Sheldon Rudoff (1933-2011) was an attorney who held leadership positions in a number of Jewish organizations including the OU, UJA-Federation, Yeshiva University and others. He was interviewed in January, 2010.

The story I am about to tell happened in the early 1950s, not long after the Rebbe took over the leadership of Chabad Lubavitch. At the time, I was in high school and living in Crown Heights on Carroll Street, which is around the corner from President Street where the Rebbe lived.

I used to see him on Shabbat mornings, walking from his home to Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. He was not yet as well known then, and he was very approachable, as he walked alone without an entourage.

He’d greet me with “Gut Shabbos,” and we’d walk together, while he inquired about my Torah learning and about my teachers. We would part ways when we reached Eastern Parkway – he’d go right to Chabad, and I’d go left to Young Israel, where I served as a youth group leader.

We were just two people walking to their synagogues – a teenager and the Rebbe. Being so young, I did not realize the import of these encounters. I only learned to appreciate them later.

Then there came a time when my Young Israel youth group was invited for a private audience with the Rebbe. We were all Torah observant boys, studying at such storied Orthodox institutions as the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy, Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, and the Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva, which had a branch in Brooklyn back then.

From our Modern Orthodox perspective, Chabad was an anomaly, because the other chasidic sects that we were familiar with were very insular, but Chabad was open and doing a great deal of Jewish outreach. For instance, on Sukkot, Chabad chasidim would stand outside the subway stations offering the lulav to Jews, so they could fulfill that commandment. This was strange to us, and yet it also made an impact on us. And I do recall that some of the kids became enraptured by Chabad as a result.

So, knowing all that, we were excited to have a chance to talk with the Rebbe, and about a dozen of us went to the meeting, which took place at 770, and lasted for at least a half hour. We were invited to sit at a table, and the Rebbe greeted us warmly. He asked us – one by one – to tell him about ourselves, and then he encouraged us to pose questions.

As I recall, we got into a discussion about the State of Israel, which was still in its infancy, having been founded in 1948. Because it was a secular state, the opinion within the Orthodox community was very divided – people were either for it, against it, or neutral. Many chasidic Rebbes refused to recognize it, so my group wanted to know where the Lubavitcher Rebbe stood. And somebody had the courage to ask him outright.

In response, the Rebbe said that his view of the State of Israel was similar to his view regarding any Jewish enterprise. For example, if Jewish people were to form an insurance company, he would want that company to function legally and ethically, and in accordance with the precepts of the Torah. As for the State of Israel, he had similar view – that it should be a place where Torah would flourish and Jewish law was respected.

He did not specify if he recognized “the State.” Neither did he say that he didn’t. He did not take a political position. And I thought that his was a fine answer. That was how he explained his position early on, and as the years went on, he promoted this view more intensely.

The other vivid recollection that I have of the Rebbe took place one Rosh Hashanah. As is customary, Jews walk on that day to a body of water to symbolically cast off their sins, while reciting the Tashlich prayer. In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, there is a lovely pond which is a perfect place for Tashlich.

I remember seeing the Rebbe walking down the street toward the Botanic Garden. He was walking alone, but about a quarter of a block behind him a huge phalanx of chasidim followed. Everyone marched together, accompanied by two policemen on horseback who were escorting the Rebbe and this Tashlich procession.

It was another Chabad anomaly – another very public mitzvah. And that was typical of the Rebbe.

He came to America in 1941 with a college degree, and for a while he worked as an engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. One could not have predicted then what course his life would take. But when he became the Rebbe, he showed himself to be a great spiritual leader, and he put Chabad on the map – literally.

Today, wherever you go there is a Chabad House, which is a haven for Jewish travelers. What the Rebbe did to inspire this flowering of the Chabad Movement is nothing short of historic, and I only hope it is appreciated by the Jewish public as it should be.

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