When I was ten years old, my family escaped Russia, together with many other Lubavitcher families. This was right after the war in 1946. We made our way, via displaced persons camps in Europe, to Australia. There I studied and also taught in a Chabad yeshivah in Melbourne, but all the while I yearned to go and learn overseas.
The idea of going overseas, to some exotic place, really appealed to my young mind. I was sure it would be better than Australia though I realize now that many consider Australia highly exotic. So, I wrote to the Rebbe asking permission to leave, but he didn’t answer my letters even though I wrote several times. Then, my mentor, Rabbi Abba Pliskin, agreed to petition the Rebbe on my behalf. The Rebbe’s answer to him came immediately, and it was quite lengthy.
In brief, the Rebbe was against my leaving Australia. He explained that there is a mitzvah that nobody else can do, of spreading Judaism in Australia, and the proof that this is my mitzvah is that nobody else is doing it. He quoted the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, “If one does charity – material charity and charity in the spiritual sense (meaning giving of his time to teach others), then his mind and heart will become crystallized and refined one-thousand-fold.”
“In other words,” the Rebbe concluded, “the hour that this boy (meaning me) learns in Melbourne, along with teaching others, will bring him as much success as if he had learned one-thousand hours.”
Later on, when I was nineteen, I organized a trip to New York for the High Holidays, so that I could meet the Rebbe. This was a huge undertaking as the cost of such a trip in 1955 was 600 pounds which was equal to a year’s wages for a laborer in those days. I managed to save up some money and I raised the rest.
When I met the Rebbe – the night before Rosh Hashanah – I asked if I could stay in New York, but the Rebbe responded, “You only just arrived. We will discuss it later, when you are ready to return.” So it was already clear to me that I would be going back.
Sure enough, at the end of my trip, the Rebbe said I had to go back, and I had to go now, this night. I protested that there were no flights tonight, but the Rebbe declared, “You can go by train.”
How does one go from the United States to Australia by train? It turned out that the Rebbe wanted me to go to Montreal by train before returning to Australia by the route that I had previously planned, which included stops in London and Paris. In all these places I was to organize a farbrengen and speak words of Torah and explain Chasidic teachings. He also outlined my mission when I returned to Melbourne – I was to establish a number of Chabad groups: Tzeirei Agudas Chabad (the youth organization), Bnos Chabad (the girls’ organization), Nshei Chabad (the women’s organization), etc. (more…)