Straight to the Top

14 January 2020

I would like to share the story of the Rebbe’s blessing that resulted in my uncle – my mother’s brother – being freed from the Soviet Union.

My mother’s entire family had perished in the Holocaust, with the exception of her older brother, Hershel (Grisha). He had joined the Jewish underground, but had been caught and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Ironically, this horrible sentence actually saved his life, while his wife and daughter were killed by the Nazis.

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After Stalin’s death in 1953, Hershel was released from prison. He remarried and moved to Rostov, where he earned a meager livelihood as a carpenter. As soon as my mother learned of his whereabouts, she began sending him parcels of items that were hard to come by during the Soviet era.

My mother’s one fervent wish was to be reunited with her brother, the sole survivor of her family. She resolved to do all that she could to help obtain visas for him and his family to enter Canada. However, all her efforts were to no avail. The chief problem was that, at the time, emigration from Russia was severely restricted by the Soviet authorities. It was almost impossible for anyone to leave, let alone a Jew who had been previously imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary activities.” The Iron Curtain was firmly shut, and Hershel was trapped behind it.

It broke my mother’s heart that her dear brother was so far away, in a place where there was little opportunity for him to live a proper Jewish life or to educate his children to live proudly and openly as Jews.

Feeling her pain, I resolved to get a blessing from the Rebbe for my uncle’s release. During a personal audience in 1970, I mustered the courage to do something that was out of character for a chasid: I asked the Rebbe to give his assurance – in addition to a blessing – that my uncle would leave Russia. At first, the Rebbe didn’t respond to my request and spoke to me about other matters. But I persisted and asked a second time, again getting no answer.

For my mother’s sake, I posed my request for a third time. This time, the Rebbe responded. He looked at me, his eyes penetrating mine, and said: “They will leave. But you cannot disclose this to anyone.” (more…)

Falling Back to Move Ahead

10 January 2020

Before I was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces during the Korean War, I came to see the Rebbe. He was very young then, having just taken over the leadership of Chabad, and it wasn’t too difficult to get an audience with him.

I told him that, in the atmosphere of the army, I would be spiritually far away from Torah, and I was worried about that.

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So the Rebbe said to me, “Sometimes in life you have to go back, so that you can go forward in the future.” But I was nervous being in the presence of the Rebbe, and I couldn’t really understand what he was trying to tell me.

Seeing the look of confusion on my face, he then got up from his seat, came around his desk and stood in front of a chair that was next to me. “Look,” he said, “if I want to jump over this chair, I can’t, because I’m right in front of it. But if I back up a bit and then run forward, I can jump over the chair with not much difficulty.”

He continued, reinforcing his point: “Sometimes in life, you have to go back to go further forward, and to reach higher spiritually.”

He then spoke about the good I could accomplish while in the army, where I would be in a position to influence other Jewish soldiers and bring them closer to Torah.

Ultimately, I was never sent to Korea, but to Europe. In the meanwhile, I was stationed at Fort Pickett, Virginia. And while there, I began a correspondence with the Rebbe.

I initially wrote to him for encouragement and in response – along with a letter dated the 2nd of Adar I, 5711, or February 8, 1951 – received from him the tract by the Previous Rebbe addressed to soldiers: Courage and Safety through Faith and Trust in God.

“Read it and you will feel encouraged and optimistic,” the Rebbe wrote. “As to the question of what one can accomplish, etc., perhaps you know that my father-in-law [the Previous Rebbe] said, quoting the Baal Shem Tov, that sometimes the whole purpose of a soul coming down on this earth and living 70-80 years is to do a fellow Jew a favor, either materially or spiritually. This goes to show how important is a good deed. You in the army certainly have many opportunities to do your co-religionists many good deeds, materially or spiritually. This ought to make you feel very happy.” (more…)

Searching for a Motive

2 January 2020

I was educated at the Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, where I received my rabbinic ordination. After I married and started a family, I accepted a job as the spiritual leader of the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Connecticut.

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Every year, Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, a fundraiser for the Lubavitch yeshivah would come to Norwich collecting money, and on one occasion I asked him a question which was bothering me at the time. It was concerning the opinion of the Shach (a prominent 17th century commentator) regarding the Laws of Oaths, and when I explained my question, he responded that for a matter of such complexity, I needed to write to the Rebbe.

Initially, I was reluctant to write. To begin with, I was not a Lubavitcher, and I thought that the Rebbe must get letters from all over the world, so would he have the time to answer me?

But, back then – this was in the early 1950s – a stamp cost three or four cents, and I had nothing to lose. Worst thing that could happen, I would not get an answer. And, in fact, the Rebbe never wrote back.

Subsequently, I left the rabbinate and went into the world of finance. A few years passed, and then a friend of mine, a Russian Jew who had immigrated to Israel, came for a visit to New York and said he’d like to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He got an appointment for the middle of the night – 1 a.m. or thereabouts – and we went together.

When we entered, the Rebbe stood up to greet us, and I introduced myself as the former rabbi of a congregation in Norwich. His reaction surprised me: “I know who you are. Didn’t you once write to me?” he asked.

And then he proceeded to answer in great detail the question which I had asked him years earlier. I no longer remember exactly what he said, but I do recall that he drew on the writings of the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Chabad Rebbe) to address the question I had raised. (more…)

Hi-Tech Impact

25 December 2019

When I started leaning in the direction of Lubavitch, my father opposed me changing my religious customs, including which prayer book I would follow, and I arranged my first private audience with the Rebbe to ask him what to do. This was in 1970, when I was eighteen years old. I explained that I was a descendent of great chasidic rabbis of Poland and had always prayed in their style (known as nusach Sephard) but I wanted to start to pray according to the Lubavitch custom (known as nusach Ari).

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There are some Lubavitchers in our family tree and, living in Crown Heights, we always had a close relationship with Lubavitch, but my father clung fiercely to the customs he learned in childhood as a Radomsker chasid and he did not want me to change my ways.

The Rebbe’s response proved very wise in that it prevented discord in the home: “Since your family’s customs are also based on the teachings of the Ari’zal [the great 16th century Kabbalist], it’s advisable that you continue to keep them and that you pray according to nusach Sephard.”

So this is what I did for several years until my father accepted that I was a Lubavitcher through and through, and eventually he was quite happy about it. At that point, the Rebbe advised me to switch to Chabad customs.

Fast forward to the time that I married Judith Sternbuch, a Jewish girl from Switzerland and, having started a family, needed to make a living. Due to the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s, the American economy came to a grinding halt and the job market was scarce. I had just obtained a college degree in computer science and my father-in-law urged my wife and me to come to Switzerland where the recession hadn’t hit yet and where he had lined up job interviews for me. I wrote to the Rebbe asking his opinion, and he answered, “Since you have many prospects, it will certainly work out.” I took his word as a promise and I went to Switzerland for the interviews.

In those days in Switzerland, a religious Jew couldn’t wear a yarmulke at work – is was not considered acceptable to wear a religious symbol at the office. But how can a chasid not wear a yarmulke? So I didn’t take it off, and I actually got the job – at the 3M Company – because of it, as the person who interviewed me owed a debt of gratitude to a Torah observant Jew. Later, my wearing a yarmulke on the job proved very important in how I was able to fulfill my assignment as the Rebbe’s emissary in the hi-tech world. (more…)

Help Wanted

25 December 2019

When my late husband, Shmuel Yaakov – better known as Jack – was a boy, he got to know Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who would later become the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This was in the 1940s, when my husband was a student at the Chabad yeshivah in Brooklyn and stood near him during morning prayers.

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In 1963, when we got engaged, Jack brought me to the Rebbe so that we could get a blessing for our upcoming marriage. I remember feeling very nervous about the audience because Jack told me it was like visiting royalty, and he described the proper conduct of behavior in the Rebbe’s presence. I was worried that I would forget some important part of his instructions, but I needn’t have been concerned. The Rebbe did not stand on ceremony, and he made me feel very comfortable from the start. When we walked into the room, he greeted my husband with great warmth, and I was immediately struck by his graciousness. He seemed to be eager to talk to us, as if he had all the time in the world.

Today, I don’t remember everything we talked about, but I do remember that he was extremely interested in our goals – what we planned to do academically and professionally.

When I told him that I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in English literature and was planning to teach at the college level, he asked me to do something for him: “I want you to always remember what I’m telling you now,” he said. “Over the course of your career, you will have many opportunities to help the Jewish people, and you should never miss any opportunity to do so.”

And many such opportunities did arise. I always kept an eye out for my Jewish students, and I tried to guide them as much as I could. But the one incident that I remember most vividly happened about thirty years after that meeting with the Rebbe. It was a most unusual and unexpected event. I was sitting in my office and a student of mine came to see me in tears. She explained that she’d been crying because she didn’t have her assignment ready. I assured her that she could give me the paper next week, and I commented that perhaps something else might be bothering her because she seemed so distraught. (more…)

Band of Brothers

10 December 2019

At an early age I was introduced to music, a heritage of my family.

My uncle, Albert Piamenta, was an Israeli saxophonist who became famous for mixing Judeo-Arabic music with jazz. My mother also loved music, so much so that the first piece of furniture she bought for our house in Tel Aviv was a piano. And my older brother, Yosi, was a guitar player who, in the course of his career, created a whole new style – a blend of rock and Israeli compositions, which had a major influence on Jewish music.

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I grew up playing piano but, after a time, I discovered the magical sound of the flute and that became my instrument of choice. At age seventeen, I started performing with Yosi, who was then a soldier and playing in an IDF band. I vividly remember joining him for a concert just when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973. We performed for the soldiers on the front lines with bombs flying over us.

A year after the war we formed a band – called the Piamenta Band – which became very popular. So much so that when the famed saxophonist, Stan Getz – one of the greatest jazz stylists ever – arrived in Israel in 1976 and heard our music, he invited us to tour and record with him. That was the first time in history that a musician of such caliber collaborated with Israeli musicians, and it caused a media sensation.

As our fame grew, we were sent by the Israeli government to perform throughout the U.S. and Canada at 30th anniversary celebrations of the State of Israel. But, by this time, I had become Torah-observant, and shortly thereafter, I was exposed to the teachings of the Alter Rebbe, the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement, and I decided to stay in New York to learn Torah and chasidic teachings. I also formed an informal yeshivah of other musicians which I called (more…)

The Art of Faith

6 December 2019

As a young adult pursuing an art degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, I got caught up in the culture of the Sixties. It was not until I dropped out of school and got introduced to Chabad that things started to change for me. This happened in 1972 when I was twenty.

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At a certain point after I enrolled in Tiferes Bachurim, the Chabad yeshivah in Morristown, New Jersey, an opportunity came up for me and some of my fellow students to have a private audience with the Rebbe. We prepared by increasing our Torah studies, and we went in one by one. I recall being very anxious and not knowing what to expect once I crossed the threshold into the Rebbe’s study. It is hard for me to describe what I felt because it seemed to me like a different reality. And I thought, “I have to take this spiritual feeling and somehow incorporate it into my art.”

As I was standing near the entrance to the room, not sure what to do next, the Rebbe said, “Come closer.” So I walked right up to the Rebbe’s desk and handed him the letter I had written listing my questions, and I also put on his desk three small samples of my art because I wanted him to advise me what I should do with my artistic talent. I thought that perhaps I should become a scribe as I was good at Hebrew calligraphy, and I believed that if I were to be religious this was probably a more suitable profession than becoming a painter.

But the Rebbe had another idea. He said that I should consider doing illuminated marriage contracts, ketubot, which have been the subject of Jewish art for many centuries. I asked him if I might also illustrate children’s books and the Rebbe approved of that, as long as it didn’t interfere with my study schedule at the yeshivah. By this point I was so excited that he was giving me the green light to express my talent, that I actually exclaimed Baruch Hashem (thank G-d) out loud three times. (more…)

Summer Camp for Life

28 November 2019

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My father was Rabbi Yisroel Yitzchok Piekarski, who served as the rosh yeshivah – head of the central Chabad yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, for forty-two years, from 1951 until 1993.

This may be curious in and of itself, as we were not followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. My family were followers of the Amshinover Rebbe. I, myself, was enrolled as a student in the yeshivah of Chatam Sofer on the East Side of Manhattan, where the word “Lubavitch” didn’t usually come up.

In fact, I knew nothing about Lubavitch until the passing of the Previous Rebbe in 1950, when every newspaper in New York had a picture of his funeral on the front page. Seeing this on every newsstand, I came to yeshivah and asked “Who is this? What is Lubavitch?”

Not getting an answer that satisfied me, I decided to ask my father. But I got nowhere with him either. I think this was because my father did not want me to have too much connection with Lubavitch because it contradicted the way he was brought up.

But then, some months after the Previous Rebbe’s passing in 1950, my father got a call from Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, the administrator of the Tomchei Temimim yeshivot, telling him that Lubavitch was looking for a rosh yeshivah and that he had come highly recommended by a number of people. (My father was considered a Talmudic prodigy from an early age and he had developed a reputation as a Torah genius.) Although he was reluctant at first, he took the job after several meetings with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who had succeeded his father-in-law as the seventh Rebbe. (more…)

A Teacher’s Prayer

19 November 2019

I began my journey toward Torah observance in Melbourne, Australia, where I connected with Chabad chasidim. After a time they felt that, in order for me to progress on my spiritual path, I needed to enroll in a yeshivah somewhere abroad – perhaps in the U.S. or England or Israel.

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I wrote about this matter to the Rebbe, who responded that I must go to Israel – he was quite definite that it should be Israel and not anywhere else. So, of course, I did as he advised.

In 1962 I went to Israel, where I studied for over a year at Yeshivah Tomchei Temimim in Kfar Chabad, and then married my wife Devorah and settled in Bnei Brak. After a time, the Rebbe recommended that I base my livelihood on my knowledge of English. This was later realized when I become the leader of an English-speaking program for those who came from a similar background as mine and had little previous education in Judaism.

After the Six Day War, there was a tremendous awakening of Jews in English-speaking countries who wanted to come to Israel, reconnect with Judaism and study Torah in yeshivah. But the teachers at Tomchei Temimim did not know how to handle them because they had no experience with this type of student who lacked basic Jewish knowledge.

In the fall of 1967, Rabbi Nachum Trebnik, the head of Tomchei Temimim, went to spend the High Holidays in New York and reported his exchange with the Rebbe back to the yeshivah administration. The Rebbe advised that a special program be set up for these young men and to appoint an English-speaker with some yeshivah experience to look after them. The Rebbe suggested that I be the one to head this program. (more…)

The Man with the Fax Machine

15 November 2019

I come from a respected Lithuanian family that had not connection to Chabad or chasidic ways. In fact, just the opposite. My great-grandfather, Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz, was ones of the senior disciples of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, and I was sent to study at Yeshivat Kamenitz in Jerusalem.

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But in 1969, I was privileged to be introduced to the Tanya, the seminal work of the Alter Rebbe, the 19th century founder of the Chabad Movement. And from that point on, my connection to Chabad only grew stronger. I participated in the studies of chasidic teachings at the Chabad yeshivah, although a directive came from the Rebbe that this had to be with my parents’ knowledge and consent.

When I got engaged in 1975, I managed, despite my parents’ opposition, to travel to New York to seek the Rebbe’s blessing for my upcoming marriage. In a private audience, the Rebbe showered me with blessings and encouraged me to stay in New York until the wedding, since it would be better for me to be separate from my future bride until then. “You will be able to learn the topics of Jewish law that you need to know before your wedding here as well,” the Rebbe said, “but you should write to your parents and future parents-in-law to find out whether they need you for the preparations for the wedding.”

But when I told the Rebbe that my parents hadn’t wanted me to come to New York at all and were pushing me to return, he instructed me to go back after Purim which was two weeks later. The Rebbe explained his instruction, “It is not clear whether being near the bride puts you at risk of violating a Torah prohibition or a rabbinic decree, but creating discord is certainly prohibited by Torah law…” (more…)

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