The Phone Call Of A Lifetime

Mrs. Rita Milstein shared about a fortuitous phone conversation she had with Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka and the Rebbetzin’s blessing for her mother after a terrible diagnosis.

Mrs. Rita Milstein (1946-2022) and her family made their way out of the Soviet Union in 1972, eventually settling in New York, where she dedicated herself to supporting other newly-arrived Russian immigrants and raising her children with a strong Jewish identity. She was interviewed in June 2013.

We had always dreamed of leaving the Soviet Union, and leaving all of our troubles behind.

My family lived in Kishinev, Moldova, where I was born in 1946. My parents were highly educated people, and although practicing Judaism was forbidden, they did their utmost to teach us the Aleph-Beis, to instill in us a love for the Land of Israel, and even to try and celebrate Jewish holidays. We never even had a Hebrew book, but we did the best we could.

When I was in second grade, my father was arrested after he began trading on the black market to make ends meet. Because he was Jewish he received an especially harsh sentence: Everything he owned was seized, and he was imprisoned for ten years. He left behind a wife and four children, and we were left with nothing.

As a little girl, I remember asking my mother repeatedly, “Why was I born here? We’re in the wrong country. We have to leave!”

“Sh, don’t say that,” she would say. “G-d forbid the neighbors will hear, and we’ll get arrested too.”
Although we were so deprived, we held on to our hopes and dreams.

And then, in 1972, I was granted permission to leave, together with my late husband and our son, Isaac. We emigrated to Israel, before moving to the United States in 1975, while I was pregnant with our second son, Rubin. We lived in Crown Heights for about three years, where Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Hirsh Okunov welcomed us into the community, helping us with housing, employment, and bringing us closer to Yiddishkeit.

Not long after we arrived, my husband wrote a letter to the Rebbe, asking for his blessing that G-d help the rest of our families leave Russia, and in reply, we received a little note. In a short time, the Rebbe told us, we would be reunited with our families. And that is just what happened: Within a period of five or six years, everybody in my family and in my husband’s family, was able to leave Russia.

But, after my mother came, she was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. Being that I couldn’t leave my mother, I was unable to take a full-time job, and began looking for something part time, which was how I came across the Kugels, a very generous Crown Heights family.

Mrs. Freeda Kugel ran a wig business out of her home and needed somebody to help out for a few hours each week, answering the phone and doing clerical work. I only worked for Mrs. Kugel for a short time, but it was through her that I encountered another woman —somebody I had heard about — Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe’s wife.

It would have been in 1977. I was working at the Kugel’s house one day, when I answered the phone.

“Who are you?” a kind-sounding woman asked me in Russian.

“My name is Rita,” I replied.

“And where is Freeda?”

“Freeda is not home. Can I take a message please?”

“Yes, but later. First tell me about yourself. Where have you come from? What is your background?”

I felt that something was unusual so I asked, “Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?”

The Rebbetzin introduced herself, and when I heard who she was, I paused. For a moment I couldn’t talk at all.

“Are you still there?” she asked.

We ended up speaking for over twenty minutes, mostly in Russian. The Rebbetzin actually asked whether I spoke any other languages. I told her that I spoke French — as did she — that my Hebrew was bad, but my Yiddish was very good, so we also conversed a little in Yiddish.

She asked me about my family and my work, about how we got out of Russia, and whether we had plans for the rest of my relatives to come out. She didn’t leave anything out. I told her about my two sons — my baby was about fourteen months at the time, and my older son was six — and about the diagnosis my mother had received just after coming to the country. I explained how I was taking her to chemotherapy and radiation three times a week, and how I had to take my toddler along because I had nobody to leave him with.

The Rebbetzin wanted to know more. How was my mother feeling? What hospital was she going to? Was there anything she could do to help me? “You can always rely on our community; we’re here to help people,” she remarked. With every word, and each expression, I felt her care and love.

And then she added: “And as for your mother, she is sick now, but she is going to live a very long life.”

The Rebbetzin went on to inquire about our children, their education, and whether we were sending them to yeshivah, which we were. My own education also came up; whether I knew the Aleph-Beis; about attending Torah classes for women; and about how much there was to learn as I became more observant.

We also discussed the situation in Israel, as well as the idea of moving there. “I would like to go and live in Israel, but if I can’t, maybe my children will,” I said.

“It’s our homeland,” declared the Rebbetzin. “We will go when Moshiach comes.”

Before we finished our conversation, I asked her for a blessing that my family do well in this new country. She blessed my whole family with good health, with success, and that “everything will be alright for you and your children.”

After getting off the phone, I had to sit down to absorb everything; I felt like I had been in a different world. When I came home later that day, my mother remarked “Rita, you look elated! What happened?”

I told her about the phone conversation, and what the Rebbetzin had said about her. Years later, when my children were older, I also wanted them to understand the significance of that conversation — It was like a lifeline for us. I thought my mother was dying, and the Rebbetzin said that she would live for many more years. In 1977, cancer research was not as advanced as it is today, and the doctors had told us there was only so much they could do. “It’s all up to G-d,” they said. But now I held on to that lifeline, and my mother ended up living for another twenty-four years. I think it is a miracle that she survived, and my mother did too.

Beyond that, that opportunity to talk to the Rebbetzin was a gift from G-d. As a mother, I felt that she treated me like a mother treats her own child. She made me feel loved, cared for, and protected.

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