The Unforgotten Jew

5 October 2016

I come from a Chabad family with roots in Russia and Germany, though by the time I was born in 1958, my parents were living in Crown Heights. When my mother was pregnant with me, she and my father came to see the Rebbe to ask for a blessing. At the time, it was the custom among some religious women to wear a partial wig covered with a kerchief. At the time the Rebbe had been campaigning that married women should cover their hair with a full sheitel (wig). When the Rebbe saw my mother he said to her, “A half a sheitel is a half a blessing, a whole sheitel is a whole blessing.

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After blessing them, the Rebbe asked to see my father privately and when my mother had left the room, he opened a drawer and took out a sum of money. It was a pretty large sum for those days. He then instructed my father to go to Manhattan and find out where the Broadway actors buy their wigs and buy my mother the nicest sheitel he could find. That is just one instance of the Rebbe’s sensitivity and caring that my family experienced.

My father was in the business of buying and selling postal stamps. As a result he travelled a lot, especially to Central and South America, buying stamps there and selling them to collectors in Europe. And, as if the Rebbe didn’t have enough on his mind, he instructed his secretariat to save the foreign stamps from his incoming mail for my father. I recall my father peeling off these stamps from the envelopes and arranging them in special collectors’ albums.

On one occasion in 1972, while my father was preparing to travel to a number of foreign cities – including Managua, Nicaragua – he wrote out his whole three-week itinerary for the Rebbe, asking for a blessing for a safe trip. The Rebbe gave the blessing, but also told my father not to rush. Meaning the Rebbe was blessing him to go, but not just yet.

So my father postponed his trip. And on December 23rd there was a massive earthquake in Managua. 6,000 people were killed and 20,000 injured. Some of the people that my father was to meet did not survive. The destruction and loss of life was terrible, but my father was spared.

Six months later my father decided to try again, and he asked the Rebbe if he should go now. This time the Rebbe instructed him, “Check and see what the US State Department advises.” My father called the State Department, and they said, “The situation following the earthquake is very bad. We don’t recommend that American citizens travel there.” So he waited.

Another three months passed, and again he asked the Rebbe, who told him that this time it was okay to go, provided he made sure to be inoculated against malaria and other tropical diseases. (more…)

Faith and Reason

28 September 2016

I grew up in the Lower East Side of New York. At that time, it was a Jewish shtetl in every way, full of first generation immigrants, who dressed, talked and behaved as they did in Europe. But observing them and learning from them proved to be extremely valuable to me, as I had contact with authentic Judaism from an early age.

My father was a student of the Chafetz Chaim in Radun, Poland, and he guided my Torah learning. He sent me to the Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Yeshiva (RIETS), where I received my rabbinic ordination, and where I studied with Rabbi Pelayah, Rabbi Belkin and Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik.

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While there I merited to meet Shifra, the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the top Torah authority in America, and we got married. A year later – in 1949 – I was offered a part-time job teaching at RIETS, and that’s where I have been ever since. Meanwhile, I also received a doctorate in microbiology from Columbia University, where I was also offered a part-time teaching job and eventually become the chairman of the department.

Now, because I was the son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, I became the address for inquiries from various quarters; I was easier to reach than he was. Rabbi Hodakov, who was the secretary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, would often call me to pass on messages, and I served as an intermediary, but I had no direct contact with the Rebbe.

One day I got a call – I believe it was sometime in 1970 – that the Rebbe wanted to see me. This audience lasted from midnight until seven in the morning, and much of that time we spent talking biology.

The Rebbe was well-versed in secular knowledge and he was up-to-date on the latest advances in science. I have to admit that he was even ahead of me when it came to physics, especially the subject of radioisotope dating of the age of the earth.

Of course, his opinion was that any data that seems to suggest the earth is older than 5,700 years old is only a test from G-d, period. He argued that the rate of decay changed at the time that the creation of the earth was completed and, therefore, scientists are making a mistake in assuming that the current rate of decay has remained the same. Of course, if the rate of decay by which we date uranium has altered over time, then this would have a huge impact on the scientific dating system.

During our conversation, the Rebbe proposed that I write a biology textbook which would be acceptable to the New York State Department of Education but which would skirt the whole issue of evolution. At that time, the study of evolution was mandatory, and students could not pass the Regents tests without answering questions about this subject. (more…)

The Young Headmaster

21 September 2016

My father came from a Lithuanian – that is, non-chasidic – background. He was born in England but was educated at the Mir Yeshiva in Russia, where he received rabbinic ordination. Upon returning to England, he worked as a communal rabbi in Manchester and in Glasgow, finally setting up a Jewish school of his own about fifty miles west of London.

This school was called Carmel College, and it was a Jewish high school for boys, the aim of which was to combine the best of a yeshivah education with the best of a secular education.

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At the time, the top high schools in England were Eton and Harrow, and most upwardly-mobile Jews in England felt that, if their children didn’t go to these schools, they wouldn’t be able to make it in English society. However, my father saw that Jewish children were losing their connection to Judaism in these schools, so he sought to offer an alternative. He wanted to establish a rival school that would not only offer the very best in secular education but also the very best in Jewish studies.

Early on, Carmel College did attract some exceptional pupils who helped it establish a phenomenal academic reputation, but the majority of the students came there because they hadn’t been able to get into the top English schools, and this was the next best thing. They were not religious and not interested in a religious education, an attitude which was not aided by their non-religious parents.

I myself attended Carmel College as a youngster but, at age 16, I was sent to yeshivah in Israel. While there, in 1961, I received a call with the terrible news that my father was gravely ill with leukemia, and I rushed home. Upon return, I found him dramatically changed – he was wearing chasidic garb, and I learned that he had recently been to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York.

When we had a chance to talk about it, my father told me about this visit and the great impression it made on him. He said he told the Rebbe that he wanted to be a chasid, but the Rebbe, praising his work with Carmel College, said, “I don’t want you to be my disciple, I want you to be my partner.”

Why did my father make such a dramatic turn at the end of his life? He said that he came to the conclusion that the Chabad Movement had been most successful in bringing the concept of Ahavat Yisrael – love among Jews – to the forefront of Jewish thought.

After my father passed away, I enrolled at Cambridge University, where I majored in philosophy but, when I finished my studies, I decided I wanted to be ordained as a rabbi, so I returned to Israel, this time attending the Mir, the same yeshiva that had ordained my father in Russia. (more…)

Patient Empowerment

14 September 2016

My ancestors were Chassidic Jews from Poland who immigrated to Israel where I was born and educated. I studied in religious as well as in secular schools, and graduated from Hadassah Medical School of Hebrew University in 1966.

After the death of Professor Chaim Sheba, with whom I worked for a number of years, I became the director of the Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer Hospital, the largest hospital in Israel with 1,700 beds, 7,000 employees and an annual budget of $600 million a year. In my capacity as director I came to the United States periodically, and on one such occasion in 1976, a friend invited me to a farbrengen.

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This proved quite an experience. It was Simchat Torah, and the farbrengen was attended by several thousand Chassidim, who were dancing and joyously celebrating the holiday. But when the Rebbe walked in, everyone stood still – you could hear a pin drop. The awe and reverence with which those present held the Rebbe was palable.

At some point during the night, I was introduced to the Rebbe, and he asked me why, in Israel, we called a hospital a beit holim, meaning “house of the sick.” He expressed the opinion that it should be called beit refuah “house of healing.” He then invited me for a discussion on the subject after the holiday.

This was arranged. The meeting proved very friendly. It wan’t a formal dialogue, rather a give-and-take between two people coming from different worlds and holding sometimes similar, sometimes contrasting points of view. The conversation was conducted in a mixture of languages – in Yiddish, which I spoke a little thanks to my grandmother, in English, but mostly in Hebrew.

In his remarks, I recall that the Rebbe put an emphasis on the soul as the source of a human being’s strength. He said that the stronger a person’s connection is to his soul, the better he can cope with life. And he pointed out that the function of the mitzvah of visiting the sick is to help the sick person strengthen that connection to his soul.

The Rebbe also voiced an opinion that every person has the responsibility to take care of their own health. Yes, doctors have a role to play, but the primary responsibility lies with the individual  Give a person the best doctor in the world, but someone who does not take care of himself, does not eat well, sleep enough or exercise enough will impair his health.

Today, there is a push in medicine toward “patient empowerment,” where we try to convince people that they must take responsibility for their health and not just rely on doctors. The Rebbe was speaking to me about this thirty years ago! It is interesting that, so many years ago, the Rebbe held was advocating this approach back then,  when no one was thinking about the issue. Today it may seem obvious, but it has only become a basic rule of medical thinking in more recent years – that preventive medicine requires the individual to take responsibility. The doctor can help, but he cannot replace the patient’s own effort. (more…)

No Need for Miracles

7 September 2016

It happened twenty-six years ago that my six-year-old son, Solly, got very sick with cancer and was cured thanks to the Rebbe’s advice.

At some point in 1986, I realized that my little boy was not doing well; he had been sick for one month straight and was not getting better. I kept taking him to local doctors – here in Sao Paulo, Brazil – but they saw nothing specifically wrong. However, my mother’s intuition kept telling me something was seriously amiss.

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Finally, I convinced a doctor to do a blood test, which showed he had anemia. The doctor prescribed vitamins but they didn’t help. Solly was constantly sleeping and listless. Again, I called the doctor, who ordered another type of blood test which showed that, in fact, my son had leukemia.

Naturally, my husband and I went into shock. Our friends urged us to seek medical advice in the United States where more advanced cancer treatment was available than in Brazil. So, two days after this terrible diagnosis, we got on a plane to New York. We went directly to the world famous Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital where we were met with a woman doctor, a specialist in leukemia who also happened to be Brazilian.

This doctor told us that Solly had developed the worst form of leukemia possible and was very sick. They would have to start chemotherapy immediately.

They did, but it didn’t work. There came a point where the doctors said there was nothing more they could do for him, and we should go back home.

When I heard that, I burst into tears. We had come to the best cancer hospital in New York, we were spending a thousand dollars a day on treatment, but nothing was helping my son. How could that be?

At the moment I asked this question, I realized something else. Up to this point, I had been relying on doctors and drugs instead of G-d. And that’s when – on the advice of the Chabad yeshivah students who had been visiting Solly in the hospital every day – I wrote to the Rebbe, telling him of my despair.

He answered right away, with one word – Bitachon – which means “Trust in G-d.”

That day I made a promise – to learn more Torah, to attend classes, to become strong in bitachon. And I began to feel a stronger connection to G-d. (more…)

The Blessing of Being in a Squeeze

31 August 2016

My grandfather, the prominent Israeli rabbi, Shlomo Yosef Zevin, came from a Lubavitcher family. He was in constant contact with the Rebbe, and when I decided – in 1955 – to begin learning in the Chabad yeshivah in New York, he was delighted. (Previously I had studied at the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.)

Obviously, one of the main attractions of studying in New York was the opportunity to spend time with the Rebbe. And, as it happened, during my stay I had the chance to speak with him privately on three separate occasions.

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The first audience included a lively discussion concerning my various Talmudic studies. My second audience was even more interesting. In middle of our conversation, he suddenly asked me, “What are you doing here in New York – doesn’t Jewish law prohibit a resident of Israel to leave for the Diaspora?”

I was a bit surprised by this question, as I had expected the Rebbe to know the three conditions which permit one to leave the Holy Land, but nonetheless I answered, “One may leave Israel for the sake of livelihood, to seek a wife or, as in my case, to study Torah.”

“Does that mean then,” he responded, “that before leaving Israel one must make a calculation – namely, that one would study more in the Diaspora than otherwise? And, having made that calculation, one need no longer think about it?”

He paused and then continued, “Or, does it mean that one must ask himself every day: ‘I am a resident of the Holy Land of Israel, what am I doing in New York?’ And every day one must be able to answer, ‘I have studied more today than I would have back home.’ Is that what one must do?”

I had never considered this question before, and I was most amazed. It was one of the many things that amazed me. Daily, I was amazed at how much the Rebbe demanded from his yeshivah students – that we should literally immerse ourselves in the study of Torah, that we should keep increasing in our studies, and that we should not be satisfied with our past achievements. But as demanding as he was, he also cared deeply about our welfare.

It was only after I had already left the yeshivah that I learned just how important my own welfare had been to him. For example, when I first arrived in New York, he had personally instructed his secretariat to see to it that I was properly settled in.

On another occasion, he took pains to pick me out of a crowd and write about me to my grandfather. On that occasion, during Simchat Torah, I was standing in a crush of chasidim. And then I saw the Rebbe, up on his podium, turn to confer with his secretary, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, who pointed me out to him. I wondered what the Rebbe might want with me, but it was not until I returned to Israel that I understood. That’s when I read a letter he had sent to my grandfather in which he wrote: (more…)

Exceptional Soldiers

24 August 2016

After establishing the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization, I led an Israeli delegation to the 1976 Paralympics in Toronto. Following the games, I got the idea of bringing this group to meet the Rebbe, and when I called Chabad Headquarters to arrange the visit, I received an instant positive response.

On the appointed date, I brought in two busloads of people, among them many former soldiers who had suffered serious injuries in the Yom Kippur War a few years earlier. We were ushered into the main synagogue, which was permeated with a very special atmosphere; it seemed to me that holiness hung in the air. And I must say that, personally, I awaited the Rebbe with tremendous emotion.

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When the Rebbe came out, he spoke to us in Hebrew, even though generally his public speeches were in Yiddish. What he said was recorded on tape; he began:

“Just as all Jewish people are able to unite together, rising above the bounds of space, so too are they able to unite and transcend the limitations of time. And this also explains the power of Israel, the Eternal People. Although they are called ‘the smallest amongst the nations,’ they are fewest only in a particular place and time. For, in fact, all Jews – from Mount Sinai until the end of generations – are guarantors for one another, and they constitute one entity, one nation. Thus they are numerous and powerful also in quantity in comparison to all the other nations. We see from this that the Jewish people’s ability to transcend the bounds of space and time stems from the innate ability of the Jewish nation to elevate the spiritual over the physical, and to elevate quality over quantity…”

He was saying this to people who were missing limbs, who had been severely injured, and his words truly spoke to everyone’s heart. Some were traditional Jews, some non-traditional, but everybody embraced this meeting with the Rebbe – they treasured it. No question, they were very moved by it, especially when he addressed us directly.

He went on to say that even if a person is lacking something quantitatively, it is no reason at all to be downcast. Quite the contrary, because he is lacking something physical – by no fault of his own, or even more so if his injury comes as a result of doing a good thing, especially through sacrificing himself in defense of the Jewish people anywhere, but especially in the Holy Land – this is proof positive that the Creator has endowed him with special spiritual powers. This person is not just equal to all those around him, the Rebbe insisted – for his superior spirit enables him to overcome the apparent physical shortcoming. In other words, he is able to succeed above and beyond the ordinary person.

And then he stunned us with this statement: (more…)

Community Affairs

17 August 2016

In 1992, while serving as spokesman for the Russian immigrant absorption department of Agudath Israel, I came to New York for a convention. As I had done on previous trips, I had planned to go to Crown Heights in order to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe and ask for his blessing.

That day, before I visited the Rebbe, I went to the offices of Agudath Israel in Manhattan, and there I ran into a man who had known my father. My father had been a very pious man, a great chasid and a great Torah scholar. In fact, he taught the late Gerrer Rebbe. And this man expressed the opinion that I should follow in my father’s footsteps.

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He said to me, “Why are you wasting your time with communal work? Your father was completely immersed in Torah study, and you should be, as well. Open a Kollel, invite young married men to study together. If you do that, I will make a deal with you – I will fund your Kollel for several years.”

This man was very wealthy, and this was an astounding offer. I must admit that
he shook me up completely. He also triggered my Jewish guilt, and I began to think:
“Communal work isn’t easy; the public doesn’t really appreciate the work its servants do so selflessly…”

These thoughts swirled in my head, and it crossed my mind that this was no ordinary event – that maybe this was a sign from Heaven. A stranger appears, perhaps a messenger from Above, and delivers these words of rebuke which affect me to the core…

But I had no time to talk it out with him because I had to be in Crown Heights
for the Mincha prayer at 3:15, in order to get the blessing from the Rebbe. So I wrote down his phone number and took a cab to the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.

I arrived somewhat late – Mincha was already well underway – so I waited in the front hallway to see the Rebbe, as he returned to his study after the prayers, along with several others who were gathered there.

As the Rebbe walked into the corridor, his prayer book in hand, his secretary Rabbi Leibel Groner noticed me and said to the Rebbe, “This is Rabbi Leizerson from Jerusalem.”

The Rebbe nodded and said, “Yes, I know him.” (more…)

A Confluence of Souls

10 August 2016

I was born and raised in Basel, Switzerland, but in 1947, when I was fifteen, my family moved to the Netherlands, where my father became the Chief Rabbi of the Hague, and opened a yeshivah for Hungarian refugees from the war. Five years later, I came to New York to enroll in the central Lubavitch yeshivah in Crown Heights.

I chose a Lubavitch yeshivah at the urging of my uncle, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, who was then secretary to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. But what really decided me was the pride in being Jewish that the Lubavitch chasidim exhibited. In Europe, many observant Jews tried to blend in – for which you couldn’t blame them, considering the degree of anti-Semitism that existed. They would cover their heads, although not with a yarmulke which would make them stand out; they’d wear a cap or a hat that looked like every other person’s headgear. But Lubavitcher chasidim openly wore yarmulkes and even went on the streets with the strings of their tzitzit hanging out. That impressed me very much.

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In 1952, when I enrolled in the Lubavitcher yeshivah, I had my first audience with the Rebbe. What I distinctly remember from that first audience is the lesson he imparted to me about appreciating life. “Don’t take life for granted,” he said. “In the morning, when you wake up, thank G-d for everything that has been given to you.”

He went on to say that many people go to sleep at night and, when they wake up in the morning, they expect their shoes to be by their bed where they left them the night before. As they are getting dressed, they complain that the weather is too cold or too hot. In effect, they are criticizing G-d – because who makes the weather? Instead, they should be grateful that they are still alive, that their possessions are still with them, that a new day is beginning where they have an opportunity to do many good deeds. It was a lesson I never forgot.

In that first audience, the Rebbe also advised me to go into Jewish education. I had been planning to enroll in university after finishing my yeshivah studies, with the intent of becoming an electrical engineer, but the Rebbe said that I would find working in Jewish outreach much more rewarding because, as he put it, “every Jew is a diamond.”

I followed his advice and, in 1957, I was appointed the Rebbe’s emissary to Toronto, where I have been ever since. After I was already well established there, I was invited by Rabbi Mottel Zajac, the Rebbe’s emissary to Buffalo, to give a talk to local university students. It turned out though that the audience would be mostly non-Jewish and that representatives of other religions would be speaking as well, so my first inclination was to refuse; I did not want to take the time away from my other duties in Jewish outreach. However, I did call the Rebbe’s office to ask what I should do.

The answer that I received was that it is worthwhile to influence non-Jews positively, especially regarding the mitzvah of giving charity. I was also advised to recount a story attributed by some to the famous 17th century Polish rabbi, Yom Tov Lipmann (from whom I am descended, though I didn’t know it at the time). (more…)

A Jew is a Catalyst

9 August 2016

When my father, Shimon Potash, was a young boy, he contracted rheumatic fever which damaged one of his heart valves. And as he got older, this condition grew worse. At the time, in the 1950s, there was no cure; today, it’s a relatively simple procedure to replace a heart valve, but this technology had not been invented until the 1960s, by which time my father’s condition had deteriorated to such an extent that the doctors would not operate.

In any case, my father was in bad shape, and since he was a member of the Chabad Lubavitch synagogue in Manchester, where our family lived at the time, he unburdened his worries about his health to the Rebbe’s emissary in England. The emissary, Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov, suggested that he write about it to the Rebbe. And this, my father did, writing in Hebrew and following Rabbi Shemtov’s advice to “write to the Rebbe as you would to a good friend.”

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In his letter, my father told the Rebbe that his heart was so weak he couldn’t climb stairs anymore. At this time he was teaching chemistry in a secondary school that was about to be rebuilt; in the new building, in which no elevator was planned, the chemistry laboratory would be on the fourth floor, and my father was fretting about what he would do. He knew for certain that he could not climb four flights of stairs, so how could he earn a living? Of course, he could look for a job in another school, but nobody wanted to hire a sick man who was already in his 50s. What did the Rebbe advise under the circumstances?

The Rebbe’s response, dated the 20th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, 5721 (June 4, 1961), really invigorated my father. First, the Rebbe told him not to worry – the new school building would not be built for another two or three years, and many things could change between now and then. But then the Rebbe set out a mission for my father.

“It is my hope that you learn Torah every day and especially on Shabbat which is holy to G-d,” the Rebbe wrote, “and also that you study chasidic teachings … and that, through your learning, you exert an influence on others.”

The Rebbe went on to say that sometimes the words of a professional person, a scientist, or chemist as was the case with my father, have more power than those of a rabbi. People expect a rabbi to quote Torah, and so they don’t give the rabbi’s words as much weight as they would a professional person. “Therefore,” the Rebbe wrote, “you should influence people to learn chasidic philosophy which was revealed in our generation.”

Anticipating the question – how can one Jew make any real difference – the Rebbe wrote: “The Jewish people are a small nation. We are a very small percentage of the world’s population, so what hope can we have to influence the world … to affect change?”

In answering his own question, the Rebbe used a metaphor from chemistry: “We find that very often a very small amount of reactant can cause a large reaction to happen. That’s the function of a Jew – to be a catalyst.” (more…)

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