I grew up in the Bronx, in a religious home. Although my parents were not affiliated with any chasidic group or movement, they sent me to a local Jewish day school which just happened to be operated by Chabad-Lubavitch. It was called the Bronx Lubavitch Yeshiva, and it accepted students from all walks in life.
While attending this school, I had the opportunity – when I was nine years old – to come for a Shabbaton in Crown Heights. This was my first introduction to what Chabad was all about. It was also the first time that I spend a night away from home, and I remember very vividly the dormitory experience – staying up the whole night, playing games and drinking green soda.
The Shabbaton concluded with a Farbrengen at the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, by which time I was completely exhausted, having not slept for nearly 40 hours. The Rebbe started to speak – he was speaking Yiddish, which I understood because my parents spoke Yiddish at home – but I just couldn’t stay awake. I started nodding off.
Suddenly, I felt jolted awake, and I found myself staring straight into the Rebbe’s blue eyes. And he announced, “The boys from the Bronx should sing a niggun!”
That was my first encounter with the Rebbe.
Not long after, I switched schools and enrolled at the Chabad Yeshiva in Brooklyn. During those years, it was a custom for the yeshiva boys to have an audience with the Rebbe on their birthday, and I remember going in once and confiding in the Rebbe about something I had done wrong. Rabbi Yoel Kahan, my mentor in the yeshiva, had told me, “You can tell the Rebbe anything. If you did something wrong, tell him and he will advise you what tikkun you must make, how you can make it right. Ask him for advice, and he will help you.”
So I did. And the Rebbe’s response showed me his human side. He was so very compassionate. He didn’t exactly say, “It’s nothing what you did – don’t worry about it,” but he was very reassuring. I was just a naïve kid and that was exactly what I needed. I felt a personal connection with him at that moment – I felt understood totally. (more…)