“Who Told You To Come?”

It was Tammuz of 5710 when young Yosef Abrahams was becoming Bar Mitvzah and was advised to knock on the Rebbe’s door for a bracha. The Rebbe wanted to know who advised him but then proceeded to put on his hat and start yechidus.

Here’s My Story

Rabbi Yosef Yeshaya Abrahams is the senior chasidic mentor of Yeshiva Gedolah of Greater Miami. He was interviewed in March 2024.

My family had just moved to Chicago when my father passed away. It was 1948, and I was eleven years old. At the end of the school year, my mother decided to move back to her family in Philadelphia, and then she sent me off to the Chabad yeshivah in Brooklyn. I traveled from Chicago to New York by train together with Rabbi Dovid Moshe Lieberman, then the rabbi of Bnei Ruven, a local Chabad congregation.

Just a few years after the war, the yeshivah had a mix of American kids, some Russian boys, and even a few Hungarians and other non-Lubavitchers whose communities didn’t yet have yeshivot of their own.

I saw the Previous Rebbe a couple times before he passed away in the winter of 1950. On special occasions, he would lead a farbrengen in his apartment upstairs in 770, but on account of his health, only a small number of chasidim would be allowed in – along with the odd person who managed to get in before the door closed.

Towards the end of a farbrengen on the 19th of Kislev of that year, the Previous Rebbe announced that “all the doors should be open – everyone should come in.” I made my way in, but there were too many taller people standing around his table for me to see anything. Then, an older yeshivah student picked me up and held me in the air for a minute. I saw the Previous Rebbe, wearing a fur spodek, his face flushed red beneath it. This was two months before his passing.

I had also seen his successor, the Rebbe – then still known as “the Ramash” – by then. A few months earlier, at a farbrengen held during Sukkot, someone pointed him out to me: “That’s the Rebbe’s son-in-law,” he told me. I watched as all the chasidim followed his lead on Simchat Torah, dancing as he danced, and then stopping when he stopped.

Over the course of the next year, as the chasidim began urging the Rebbe to take over his late father-in-law’s mantle, he began to speak in public more regularly. At farbrengens, he would often cry when speaking about the Previous Rebbe, and would always talk about how, even after their passing, the righteous do not leave their followers behind. “The shepherd has not left his flock,” he would say. “The Rebbe has not gone away – he is here with us.”

The first time I saw him lead a farbrengen after the Previous Rebbe’s passing was on the last day of Pesach, 1950. It was then that I began to realize that we had a new Rebbe. It was all still unofficial, but we could already feel that he was the Rebbe.

By this time, I was twelve, and my Bar Mitzvah was coming up. The Rebbe would only start receiving people for private audiences on a regular basis, as a Rebbe does, before Rosh Hashanah of that year, but somebody told me that it would be worth going to ask him for a blessing. It was summertime, in the month of Tammuz.

“How do I do that?” I asked

“Just knock on his door.”

So one afternoon, I went to the Rebbe’s office in 770. At first, I just stood by the door, until some young men asked me what was going on, and then encouraged me to knock.

Rabbi Nissan Mindel, the Rebbe’s secretary, opened up. The Rebbe had apparently been in the middle of dictating a letter to him, but when he saw me, he understood why I had come and he walked out without saying anything.

“I’m becoming a Bar Mitzvah, and I am asking for a blessing,” I said to the Rebbe.

“Who told you to come?” he asked.

I told him that it had been one of the yeshivah students.

“Which one?” he prodded, and I told him.

Until that point, the Rebbe had been sitting wearing his yarmulke, but without a hat. After those two questions, he put on his hat, opened up his drawer, and took out a piece of paper. He asked for my name, my mother’s name, and our family name. It was clear that a “yechidus” had begun.

The Rebbe asked where the Bar Mitzvah would be held – Philadelphia – and he instructed me to recite Psalm 71 – the chapter corresponding to the Previous Rebbe’s age – every day, at least until Rosh Hashanah. “Wherever you will be, the Rebbe will be with you,” he told me.

A few months later, just two days before Sukkos, I got sick. Most of the yeshivah had already gone home for the holidays, but a doctor was called for me. “It’s the appendix,” he declared, and told me I would need to go to the hospital for an operation.

With my mother in Philadelphia, Rabbi Mentlik, the head of the yeshivah, and his brother-in-law Reb Moshe Pinchas Katz, took me to the hospital and signed me in. As a young kid, I didn’t know what to expect and I thought I was about to die.

But then, as my hospital bed was being pushed into the operating room, I heard Rabbi Mentlik tell Reb Moshe Pinchas: “The Ramash asked that we let him know when the operation is happening.”

I understood that the Rebbe was going to pray for me and I calmed down: Everything would be good.

A few days later, I was back in 770 for Simchas Torah, with Rabbi Mentlik keeping an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t being pushed around during the dancing. After the evening service, he took me over to the Rebbe and introduced me: “This is the student who wasn’t well.”

“He will be a healthy Jew,” replied the Rebbe. He then repeated himself, and then again: “He will be a healthy Jew! He will be a healthy Jew!”

The next day, at the farbrengen, the Rebbe began pouring out drinks for people to say l’chaim. When a friend went over and asked to get a l’chaim for me, the Rebbe said, “He should come himself!” – and I did.

A few months later, during the audience I had in honor of my fourteenth birthday, the Rebbe asked about my health, and he continued to pay attention to my wellbeing later on, as well. In 1956, the Rebbe sent me and a friend to study in a new yeshivah in Newark. I would often miss breakfast there and ended up becoming a little thinner over the next year.

That Pesach, I was back in Crown Heights, walking to the yeshivah dining hall for the festive meal, late in the afternoon. Just as I left 770, the Rebbe was walking in.

“Did you have the Yom Tov meal yet?” he asked me.

I was slightly taken aback. “No.”

“Will there be anything left?”

“Probably,” I said.

“Probably or definitely?”

I assured the Rebbe that there would still be food, which he accepted.

I almost thought I had dreamed the whole exchange, but then when I saw the Rebbe at the end of the holiday, during the Kos Shel Bracha ceremony, he brought it up again: “Sodid you have the meal?”

That summer, at my birthday audience, the Rebbe asked whether I was eating before prayers in the morning. “You don’t even have a bite to eat?” he queried.

“Sometime, some cornflakes,” I said.

The Rebbe smiled, and then suggested I pay a visit to Dr. Avraham Seligson.

When I did, the doctor wasn’t sure why I had come. “What happened? What did the Rebbe say?” he asked. Eventually, he figured that I looked a little weak, and he gave me some vitamins to take. Thank G-d, I’m still a healthy Jew.

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