Rabbi Mayer Plotkin is a Montreal-based businessman who has directed many Chabad activities in the area for decades and received special directives from the Rebbe.
Rabbi Mayer Plotkin is a Montreal-based businessman who has directed many Chabad activities in the area for decades. He was interviewed three times, in the years 2010, 2011, and 2022.
After getting married in 1965, and spending some time in Montreal, where my wife and I are from, we wanted very much to move out on shlichus – to become emissaries of the Rebbe. We had the opportunity to take up positions in Detroit, California, or Florida – but first we had to ask the Rebbe.
When I wrote to the Rebbe about the idea, he answered that I should “consult with friends.” I did so, and my friends thought that I should go into business. However, I didn’t want to become a businessman, so I wrote to the Rebbe a few more times, telling him that I still wanted to go on shlichus – and he kept giving me the same answer: I was to follow the advice of my friends.
In general, I would write to the Rebbe as if he were my father, openly expressing how I felt and what was on my mind. And so, I took a deep breath, and decided to write one last time. I suggested that – despite what he had already told me – the Rebbe would really want me to be on shlichus.
I’ll never forget the response: “Where did you get that idea from?” the Rebbe retorted. “Haven’t I already written, once, twice, three times,” – underlining those words for emphasis – “that you should consult with friends? Stop sending letters here because I am not going to answer. Make a decision straight away based on the advice of your friends, and may G-d grant you success.”
Well, I tried, and I didn’t get my way. But it wasn’t over just yet.
Not long after, we were in Crown Heights for Simchat Torah. My wife and I were going to have a private audience with the Rebbe the next day, and on the holiday itself, the Rebbe held a public gathering, as was customary.
During that farbrengen, as such gatherings were called, the Rebbe spoke about the concept of shlichus and strongly encouraged the chasidim to volunteer themselves to embark on such outreach work.
Wow, I thought to myself, now is my chance! Before we met with the Rebbe the next day, my wife and I prepared a note for him. Following what the Rebbe had said at the farbrengen, we wrote that we were volunteering for shlichus, and signed our names. We were willing to go to Timbuktu or Outer Mongolia – wherever the Rebbe would send us.
Instead, the Rebbe gave us a blessing: “May you be successful in spreading the wellsprings of Torah in the place where you are.” We were staying in Montreal.
But even though I went into business in Montreal, there were still things I could do to spread Judaism. For example, the Rebbe wanted us to visit the smaller towns around Montreal where there used to be large Jewish communities, like Cornwall and Sherbrooke, in order to strengthen the Jews there and make events for them. He gave this initiative to me, and I went ahead and arranged those programs.
When the Rebbe launched his campaign to encourage people to observe kosher, it became a personal project for me. Unlike helping someone put on tefillin or put up a mezuzah, going kosher is a much longer, more time-consuming process. In the evening, even though I had been working all day and had nine kids at home, I would go to people’s houses to help them make their kitchens kosher.
One year around Purim time, I got a call from Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Hodakov, the Rebbe’s senior secretary, who was a no-nonsense kind of person.
“It says that a person should go into exile in order to study Torah,” he began. “Accordingly, every year, there are hundreds of yeshivah students who go away from Montreal to study Torah in other cities. Passover is a time when they all come back home, so it would be appropriate if, during Passover, you brought them all together for a Kinus Torah.” By this he meant to arrange a Torah conference, with a lineup of speakers and lecturers, for all of these students to attend.
I strongly resisted the idea. “First,” I told him, “I work for a living.” I just didn’t have the time to put on something like this, and Passover was only a month away. “Second, how am I supposed to find all these hundreds of yeshivah students?” Montreal is a big city: It has a sizable Chabad community, several other big chasidic communities like Satmar and Belz, as well as a large non-chasidic Lithuanian community and a Sephardic community. They all have teenage boys going to yeshivah, but I didn’t know any of their names, or where they learn, or whom to call. “How am I going to do this? It’s not for me,” I concluded.
“What do you mean you can’t do it?” he exclaimed.
“With all due respect,” I replied, “but do you know how much work this is? I’m only flesh and blood, with two hands, and this is beyond my abilities. I don’t have a Chabad House, a workforce, or an office behind me.”
And then I added: “I can do it if I know the Rebbe himself is behind this. If the Rebbe says to do something, then mountains can move and I’ll find the strength to pull it off. So tell me, was the Rebbe the one who selected Mayer Plotkin for this task?”
The phone went quiet, and then all of a sudden, I heard a cough. I jumped. I knew that cough; I would recognize it if I heard it in the middle of the Sahara Desert or atop the Himalayas. The Rebbe was on the line and could hear our conversation. As a rule, the Rebbe did not talk on the phone. But it was well known that he would occasionally participate in key calls by picking up the receiver in his office. This time, subsequent to my question, he chose to make his presence known.
“So what should I tell the Rebbe?” Rabbi Hodakov asked me.
“Tell the Rebbe that I need the Rebbe’s blessings to be able to accomplish this, and I hope to put it together to his satisfaction.”
I don’t know how, but I ended up pulling the event together, and it was exceptionally successful. A yeshivah student who is today a respected rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Avraham Gerlitzky, chaired the conference; several of Montreal’s most prominent rabbis and heads of yeshivah spoke; and a few yeshivah students delivered talks on the Talmud.
Afterwards, I wrote all of this to the Rebbe. In his reply, the Rebbe told me how pleased he was. He quoted the saying of our Sages that “one who has one hundred wants two hundred,” concluding, “May G-d help you that next year, it should be even more successful.”