Our Man in Texas

14 November 2018

I come from a Lubavitch family going back to my great, great-grandfather who was a disciple of the Mitteler Rebbe, the second Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. In 1930, during the persecution of Jewish leaders by the Soviets, my grandfather and namesake, who was the Rabbi of Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), was arrested. He was sent to a gulag in Siberia from which he returned three years later a broken man, and he died in 1933 in Leningrad. I never knew him, and I also never knew my father who was killed during World War Two when my mother was pregnant with me.

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After the war, we made it out of Russia via France about the same time as the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana. The Rebbe (before he became the Rebbe) came to Paris to escort her to America, and I recall dancing with the Rebbe as a five-year-old kid, along with the other Russian chasidim.

My mother and I did not go to America however. First, we went to Israel and only years later, in 1958, did we come to America and I enrolled in the Chabad yeshivah in New York.

From the time I started learning in the yeshivah, my relationship with the Rebbe was that of a child to a father or grandfather. Whatever he told me to do, I did. For example, just four years after I arrived in New York, he sent me back to France to study at the Chabad yeshivah in Brunoy, France, in anticipation of a big immigration there of Moroccan youth. The Rebbe knew that they would need a lot of encouragement, so he sent me and five others to accomplish this mission. (more…)

The Impossible Kiddush

8 November 2018

When we first immigrated to Canada from Holland in 1951, we settled in Toronto. It took some months before we could buy our own home, and our initial accommodations were very primitive – in fact, we lived in an abandoned house which the Jewish community planned to make into a mikveh. But the place was free and it was temporary, so we made do.

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We were a family of ten children. I was already twenty years old, and so I went to work, while my younger siblings went to school. The two youngest ones stayed home with my mother – Obi, who was three, and the baby, Amina, who was not quite two at the time.

It was hard on my mother, because the house had no modern facilities and, to do the laundry, she had to boil water in a big pot on the stove, then haul it upstairs to the bathroom which was on the second floor. One day, when she was going back and forth, she returned upstairs to find Amina submerged in the pot of boiling water!

In a panic, my mother grabbed her and she immediately saw that her skin was coming off her. She wrapped Amina in a sheet, and rushed her to the Hospital for Sick Children. I don’t know how she managed this, because she didn’t speak English, but she ran out into the street screaming, and people helped her.

Later that same day – which was Thursday, November 22, 1951 – I was sent to the hospital to talk to the doctors because I was the only one in the family who was fluent in English, having attended the Bais Yaakov seminary in London. The doctors’ prognosis was grim. “Tell your parents that there is no hope,” they said. “This child is going to die. She is not going to live out the day.” (more…)

Nixon’s List

1 November 2018

I was born in Russia right after World War Two ended. It was very hard being Jewish under the Soviet regime; although we managed to practice Judaism, everything had to be secret, everything had to be done behind closed doors.

Thanks to the Rebbe’s assistance, my grandparents got out in 1958 and came to Israel. The Rebbe had started to get Jews out around that time when, with Nikita Khrushchev as premier, the Soviets had become more sensitive to international pressure. The Rebbe did things quietly, without fanfare. He ran an entire Jewish underground under their noses and got away with it.

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I left with my parents in 1968, but whereas they settled in Israel, I came to study at the Chabad Headquarters in Brooklyn.

While I was in yeshivah there, my parents came to New York for an audience with the Rebbe. I remember that my mother broke down in tears when she told the Rebbe that her sister couldn’t get out of Russia. Her sister’s husband had been in jail for eight years for teaching Torah, and my mother was certain there was no way that the KGB would let someone like that go. At the same time, he was unemployable as he could not find a job that would let him take off for Shabbat, and the family was in dire straits.

After hearing my mother out, the Rebbe said, “If it was up to the KGB, you would still be in Russia. So why are here? Because G-d made a miracle, and He took you out. It’s true your sister needs a bigger miracle, but I ask you: To G-d, is a big miracle any harder than a small miracle? To Him, it makes no difference.”

Six months later, my mother’s sister and her whole family managed to emigrate!

After I got married in 1970, I started looking for a job – I badly wanted to be a Chabad emissary somewhere in the world. So I approached Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik, who runs the Chabad institutions in Milan, Italy, and he agreed to hire me as a kosher inspector (mashgiach) in a restaurant he operated. This was conditional on the Rebbe’s approval, of course. (more…)

Laser Vision

24 October 2018

After the Six Day War, in 1967, my wife and I decided to move from the United States to Israel with our young family. Before the move, I came over on a pilot trip and was granted a job interview at the Israeli Ministry of Defense. After they conducted a lengthy investigation, to my great joy, I was hired. I went to work for the Ministry of Defense using my skills as a Harvard-educated lawyer to negotiate contracts for the purchase of defense equipment including submarines.

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After three years of doing this, I got a better offer, and I went to my boss, the general counsel of the Ministry of Defense, Joseph Ciechanover, and told him about my plan. His response to me was, “Did you ask the Rebbe about this?”

I almost fell off my chair. Here was a man who was not religious,  sitting in front of me without a yarmulke, and he was telling me to ask the Rebbe! He went on to explain, “There are a number of us who have worked for the Ministry of the Defense for a long time and we also want to leave, but the Rebbe won’t let us.”

I didn’t know what to make of his statement at first, and only later on did I figure it out. This was in April of 1973, six months before the devastating Yom Kippur War. The Rebbe obviously anticipated that something ominous was on the horizon. A departure of key personnel in the Ministry of Defense at such a time would have been disastrous. They consulted the Rebbe – as apparently was the practice of certain Israeli government officials – and they followed his advice. As for myself, since I was not yet a chasid, I didn’t ask the Rebbe; I simply left and took the better paying job, as general counsel at Etz Lavud, a big Israeli company then selling mostly wood and plywood.

While at Etz Lavud, I came across a difficult personal issue, involving Yosef Kremerman. He was the company’s CEO as well as one of the principal shareholders, and my boss. Being a former member of the Irgun (the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces), he had signed guarantees for monies paid out to the widows of Irgun fighters, and that put a tremendous amount of financial pressure on him. I saw that this situation was affecting the company, and I was actually considering leaving. I really didn’t know what to do, so I consulted my uncle, Rabbi Leibel Kramer, who said, “This kind of question you ask the Rebbe.” (more…)

No Half and Half

17 October 2018

Mine was not an auspicious beginning. I was born in Vilna in the midst of World War Two, just a week before the German bombardment of the city began in 1941. It was difficult to assemble a minyan for my circumcision, as everyone was scared to come outdoors and, thereafter, my parents had to hide me in an orphanage while they fled the Nazis.

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My father did not survive the war, although my mother and I did. She remarried and my step-father, David Sattler, raised me like a real father, and I always considered him as such. He was a descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of the Chasidic Movement, but after the war he became a Communist. This mindset also influenced how he directed my education toward secular studies, but, while I responded to his guidance, I also had questions of my own.

After we moved to Haifa, Israel, my parents found it hard to make ends meet. In order to bolster the family finances, I started to tutor younger children. It was then that I had my first major insight. I am naturally sensitive to interpersonal relationships, so I noticed a difference between the children studying in secular schools and those studying in religious schools. The religious ones had an air of calmness, and their relations with their parents were entirely different, much more respectful.

After graduating high school in 1959, I was drafted into the IDF. During my last year in the army, I began to study mechanical engineering at the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology. Here, too, I noticed a disturbing phenomenon (more…)

The Struggling Economist

10 October 2018

Most tourists to Jerusalem know my family name – Mandelbaum – because they have visited the site where my family’s home once stood. It had been destroyed in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence, and a gate was erected on its site. During the nineteen years that Jerusalem was divided, in order to proceed from one part (the Israeli part) to the other part (occupied by Jordan), everyone had to pass through what was called – after the ruin of our home – the Mandelbaum Gate. When Jerusalem was reunited after the Six-Day War, the Mandelbaum Gate was dismantled, but the site is part of Jerusalem’s history now and most tourists are taken to see it.

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As a teenager, I served in the Israeli army but my service was cut short due to injury. For a time I studied in yeshivah, but ultimately I decided to enroll in university in order to study economy.

Why economy? Partly because I saw my family’s financial situation plummet – we were one of the wealthiest families in Jerusalem before the State of Israel was founded, but during the War of Independence, we lost almost everything and became refugees. So I saw economic issues from a personal point of view.

I studied at Hebrew University, where I received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but after I got married and started a family, I didn’t have the financial resources to continue on to a doctorate. Then one day I read about a US State Department grant program for economics students from developing countries.

Unbelievably, from among some two hundred Israelis who applied, I was the one chosen. When I asked why I was accepted, I was told that every other applicant tried to impress the selection committee with their knowledge, but I was the only one who said I didn’t know and wanted to learn.

The program of study was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; it was a very prestigious program with candidates carefully chosen by the State Department. It was an elite group and studying with them gave me extensive connections throughout the world, as all the graduates achieved very high positions. (more…)

Can You Land This Plane?

4 October 2018

The events that I am about to relate took place in 1958, when I was just twenty-four years old. I was enrolled in rabbinic studies at Yeshiva University, whose Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik strongly encouraged his students to serve in the armed forces. He felt that the United States had been very good to the Jewish people, and that we had an obligation to do our part in serving the country.

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He instituted a policy that five students in every rabbinic class of Yeshiva University were obliged to volunteer as chaplains in the US armed forces. These five were selected through a lottery system, and I happened to be one of them. I passed the physical and was informed that a chaplain was needed in the US Air Force, so this is where I prepared to go.

However, my father objected. He felt, as did many Torah observant people back then, that the armed forces – with their secular environment – were not a place for religious boys.

With Rav Soloveitchik telling me to do one thing and my father telling me to do another, I was stuck. But, as we read in the Talmud, “two verses contradict each other, until a third verse comes to resolve the dispute.”

I decided that the “third verse,” should come from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Why did I choose the Rebbe? For three reasons: First, I had heard stories about him, that he could solve difficult problems and how even non-religious people would go to him for advice. (more…)

From Rolling Stones to Wrapping Tefillin

4 October 2018

Several months after I returned from a concert tour with the Rolling Stones, I met the Rebbe and – because of him and despite of me – I experienced an unexpected spiritual awakening.

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My parents were both Holocaust survivors from Belorussia, and I had been born in a DP camp right after the war. I was raised Torah observant with Yiddish as my first language. After we came to the United States in 1950, I kept Shabbat, I went to yeshivah, and I put on tefillin.

But, after being exposed to a lot of inconsistency and some hypocrisy, I started to question it all, and by the mid-1960s, I stopped keeping Torah. After a time of experimenting with acting, I found myself at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo, studying law and dabbling in music promotion.

In my early twenties, I found myself hanging out with some very famous people in the music and entertainment business – like Carly Simon and Chip Monck. Through Chip’s efforts, I was invited to travel with the Rolling Stones on their 1972 summer tour, and I got to see more depraved human behaviour than most people will ever see in a lifetime. (more…)

Turning Rascals into Rabbis

20 September 2018

I was born in Siedlce, Poland, four years before World War Two broke out, at which time my family fled to Russia. Despite the difficulties of living on the run, my father spared no effort to educate me and my siblings in the ways of Judaism – in keeping with the education he, himself, had received at Chabad’s Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Warsaw. After the war, we came to Israel, where I learned in the Chabad yeshivas in Tel Aviv and in Lod.

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After I got married in 1961, I began working as a teacher, eventually taking a job with the Tomchei Temimim yeshivah in Kfar Chabad, where I was placed in charge of the Chassidic development of the students.

Over the years, hundreds of young men learned in the yeshivah. Understandably, from time to time, there were students who misbehaved. When such cases would be discussed in the teachers’ meetings, sometimes the staff would argue regarding the best way to respond. I always tended towards being lenient, and I’d try to convince the other teachers not to react harshly. Because of this, staff members nicknamed me “the Berditchever” – after Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who always emphasized the good in Jews and was called “the Advocate of the Jewish People.”

At one point in the mid-1970s, I had to deal with a really problematic group of students in the yeshivah. They were considered difficult to discipline, and the widespread opinion among the senior staff was that that they should be dealt with severely.

I opposed this approach, insisting that they be dealt with more leniently. But I also had my doubts – perhaps I was being too soft, perhaps the other teachers were right and we should be more firm with them.

I decided to ask the Rebbe what to do. (more…)

When I Won the Lottery

12 September 2018

I was born in 1926 in Kursk, Russia. It was at the beginning of Soviet rule, but despite the difficulties involved, my parents made sure to give me a Jewish education.

When I was ten years old, my parents managed to get a permit to leave Russia, and we came to the Israel, then the British Mandate for Palestine. There I continued my Torah studies.

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I was twenty-two years old when the State of Israel was established. I joined the Israeli army and served with the rabbinate of the IDF, eventually advancing to the position of officer in charge of religious affairs. My job description included supervising kashrut and overseeing prayers during Shabbat and holidays. On Rosh Hashanah, I blew the shofar for the soldiers, and on Passover I organized the Seder. I saw that if one had the will, one could gain much spiritual benefit from influencing soldiers within the framework of such a job. And indeed, the Rebbe encouraged me very much to take advantage of my position, and to use every means possible to strengthen the Torah observance among the soldiers.

When I completed my compulsory service, I was invited to sign up for the standing army. I debated doing so because I had gotten married in the meanwhile, and this position necessitated my staying on the base for Shabbat and holidays – not a convenient thing in my new status as family man. But I didn’t decide on my own. I wrote to the Rebbe and followed his advice to lengthen my service. (more…)

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