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…)

Father’s Orders

9 August 2016

I was born in Queens, New York, and was educated in Chabad Lubavitch schools in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. In 1956, after I finished high school, I consulted the Rebbe as to my next step, and he advised me to transfer to the advanced Lubavitch Yeshiva in Montreal.

However, my father was opposed to my continuing Torah studies, because he wanted me to work with him in his business. He had a small butcher shop, and he could not afford to hire any workers, so he really wanted me to stay.

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Not sure what to do, he went to see the Rebbe to talk about this, and when he returned, he had completely changed his mind. In fact, he told me that he would be very happy to see me go to Montreal to study.

When I questioned him about this stunning reversal, he related to me his conversation with the Rebbe:

“Will you permit your son to continue his Torah studies in Montreal?” the Rebbe asked.

“I am not inclined to do so,” my father answered, “because when my son will be so far from home he will not be fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring his parents.”

“Well,” countered the Rebbe, “if you command your son to travel to Montreal to learn, and he fulfills your wishes, he will be honoring you by doing so.”

“If you put it that way,” said my father, “how can I refuse?”

So this is how it happened that I went to study at the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Montreal, where I remained for seven years. During that time, I corresponded frequently with the Rebbe, confiding what was in my heart and asking his advice.

I remember that once I wrote to ask what I should do when I felt that wayward ideas were intruding into my thoughts. He answered, “It is known that a little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness. So if you make sure that you are immersed in Torah – including Talmud and Tanya – and you can recite portions of it by heart, you will find your mind liberated.”

At another time, I asked him if it was wrong to do good deeds for personal gain. He replied. “Keep in mind that many times the yetzer hara –the bad inclination – wants to keep you from doing good deeds by suggesting that what you are doing is for personal gain and not for altruistic reasons. This is how it prevents you from doing anything at all. So always remember what our Sages taught, ‘Do good, even if not for the sake of G-d, for through these actions, you will come to do good solely for the sake of G-d.’ Strive to improve yourself, but in the meanwhile, do not refrain from doing good just because you may lack the proper intention.” (more…)

Pebble in a Lake

9 August 2016

Mr. Gordon Zacks

In 1969, the Council of Jewish Relations and Welfare Funds had its annual general assembly in Boston based on the theme: “Youth Looks at the Future of the Jewish People.” As the chairman of the Young Leadership Cabinet, I was invited to give the keynote address to the 3,000 delegates from 200 communities around the United States and Canada who made up the Council of Jewish Relations and Welfare Funds.

Apparently the Rebbe read about my speech and he decided that he wanted to meet me. So I was invited to come in for a private audience.

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I was escorted into the Rebbe’s study, and I’ll never forget that moment if I live to be a hundred. As I walked in, he stood up. He had these penetrating, crystal clear, blue eyes. His presence was so intense and yet so peaceful at the same time. I mean you could feel such energy there, and yet there was also such serenity and peace. This was a very, very strange combination of factors that was most impressive. And the memory of this meeting remains a very vivid part of my life experiences.

He didn’t say, “Welcome,” he doesn’t say “Hello,” he didn’t say any words of greeting. He opened with: “Mr. Zacks, I have read your speech, and it is clear to me that you have taken good care of your mind. I look at you and it’s clear to me that you have taken good care of your body. What are you doing for your soul, Mr. Zacks?”

That was the opening to the conversation in the course of which he encouraged me to open up my head and my heart to learning how to be Jewish. And he said something that was very profound and very real: “Remember Mr. Zacks, if you want to change the world, you have to first change yourself.

“When you change, it’s like dropping a pebble in a lake,” he told me. “And there are ripples that go out from the point of contact, which influence all those around you. If you change and become connected to G-d in your soul, and as a consequence, you behave in a manner that G-d would require of you, it will impact the people around you. And the power of that impact is the first and the most important step toward making the world a better place. So remember to focus on yourself first.”

It was a conversation that lasted an hour-and-a-half, but that’s what he said in a nutshell. I remember he said to me, “I also want you to think about what needs to be done to save the Jewish people from the fires of assimilation.”

When I walked out of there, I was deeply affected. And to this day, the Rebbe remains one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met in my life. He had a profound impact on the life choices that I made from that day forward. (more…)

200 Years of Hindsight

13 July 2016

I grew up in a non-chasidic background and interestingly enough, I married a girl from a Lubavitcher family. From the beginning, she asked me to accept Chabad customs and the Rebbe’s directives upon myself. For a while I resisted – I would keep my own customs while she kept hers. For instance, on Passover, she would eat hand-made matzah while I ate mine machine-made; she would keep her matzah dry, while I would dip mine in liquid.

Then, one day I decided to consult a rabbi – not chasidic – who actually told me that I should listen to my wife. As a result of his advice, I began conducting myself according to Chabad customs, except that I would not pray with the Chabad liturgy. The 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement, the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, published a prayer book based on the Sephardic text used by the Ari, the great 16th century Kabbalist.

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My wife suggested that I ask the Rebbe about this. I agreed and, in 1962, wrote him a letter: First, I asked, was it permissible for chasidim to change their prayer liturgy – wasn’t one obligated to follow familial custom?  Second, how was it possible to know who was greater – the great chasidic master, the Alter Rebbe, or the great opponent of chasidic ways, the Vilna Gaon? Underlying my question was the thought that if such a great Torah scholar as the Vilna Goan was opposed to Chasidut, then why should I delve into its teachings?

I never received an answer to my letter, but about eight months later, I met the Rebbe in person for the first time. During our visit to New York, my wife and I were able to have two private audiences with him – one long meeting upon our arrival and a second, shorter, audience just before we left.

As our first audience was coming to an end, as we were turning to leave, the Rebbe stopped us, “One moment. I still owe you a reply to your letter.”

I stopped, surprised that, so many months later, the Rebbe still remembered it.

“Regarding your first question,” the Rebbe began. “If people had never varied from familial ways, the Chasidic Movement would never have been founded. However, Chasidism was not meant to nullify or change anything; rather its founder’s purpose was only to reveal new dimensions in Judaism that weren’t well known in those days.

“As for your second question, the Vilna Gaon’s opposition to Chasidism was based on the fact that it was an anomaly to him, and he was worried that it would lead to a deterioration of Torah observance. But now – over two hundred years later – you can see for yourself that this has not been the case. If I would ask you ‘How does a chasid look?’ You would describe to me a Jew who sports a beard, prays at length and fulfills mitzvot scrupulously. Had the Vilna Gaon foreseen how the Chasidic Movement would develop, he would certainly never have opposed it in the first place.” (more…)

The Mysterious Visitor

6 July 2016

I was born in 1938 in Poland, right before the Second World War broke out. During the war I was hidden with a non-Jewish family, and only with G-d’s help did I manage to survive. After the war my mother located me and – with no home left to go to –placed me temporarily in an orphanage near Paris, headed by Rabbi Zalman Schneerson, a Lubavitcher chasid who worked tirelessly to locate Jewish children hidden in Christian homes during the war.

It was there that I received my Jewish education and was taught how to read Hebrew and how to pray. One day, in 1947, we were told that we were expecting an important visitor, and we were to dress in our finest. When he arrived I remember that he was a tall man and very distinguished looking. He spoke to each one of us – one by one – thirty children in all. He asked us our names and then quizzed each child with an easy question, such as: “What blessing do you make on an apple?”

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When my turn came, he asked me: “When do we recite the thanksgiving prayer, Hallel?” I answered correctly that we recite it on the holidays and at the beginning of every month.

A few months later the orphanage received a package of large prayer books as a gift from the mysterious visitor. The gift was greatly appreciated, because we only had small books which were not easy to read.

It was not until later, when I immigrated to New York, that I learned who the illustrious visitor was – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the cousin of the orphanage’s administrator and future Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the time, he had been in France arranging documentation for his mother, who was then residing in Paris.

Several years after these events, I ended up leaving my mother in Paris and enrolling in the central Lubavitcher yeshivah in Brooklyn One day I received a message from Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, that the Rebbe wanted to see me. “At eight this evening, you have an appointment for a private audience with the Rebbe,” he said.

I was extremely nervous; I couldn’t fathom what the Rebbe might want from me. When I entered the room, the Rebbe must have noticed my anxiety because he immediately assured me that nothing bad was going to happen. Then he explained the reason why I was summoned: “I received a letter from your mother, asking my advice whether she should move to America or not. And I would like to ask you some questions before I advise her.”

The Rebbe first wanted to know where she lived now, and I answered that she was residing in the home of my non-observant sister and her husband, keeping house for them, cooking, cleaning and watching their child while they were at work.

The Rebbe asked, “When your mother cooks, may I assume that the food is kosher?” (more…)

How to Publish a Newspaper

29 June 2016

I began my journalism career in Tel Aviv as a local writer for the religious newspaper Hatzofe (“The Observer”). After several years, I was promoted to the post of managing editor for the entire newspaper.

Two years prior to my promotion – that is, in 1958 – I had reason to be in New York, and when my father heard about my impending trip, he urged me to use the occasion to meet the Rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch. Although my father was not a Chabad chasid himself, he would regularly correspond with the Rebbe via the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov.

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I obeyed my father and I made an appointment, which was scheduled several days after Purim for eleven o’clock at night. When I arrived at the Chabad Headquarters in Crown Heights, the first thing that struck me was the level of activity which was taking place at such a late hour. It might as well have been the middle of the day. I waited while many others waited with me, secretaries rushed to and fro, and yeshivah students studied Torah in the adjoining room. Finally, at one o’clock in the morning, I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study.

As soon as I entered, the Rebbe stood up. He greeted me with a smile on his face and he shook my hand. He invited me to sit down and, after a brief introduction, we began discussing the function of a newspaper – more specifically, a religious newspaper.

“The truth of the matter is,” he said, “the world would probably be better off without newspapers altogether. Rather than reading them, people’s time would be better spent studying Torah. But since newspapers do exist, there is a danger that people might read the wrong newspapers and be influenced by ideas counter to Judaism, it is absolutely necessary that there should be religious newspapers to present the news in a way that will bring Jews closer to Judaism.”

The Rebbe continued, “Only when a religious newspaper serves such a purpose does it have a reason to publish. For instance, if it reports that President Eisenhower met with another head of state in a way that demonstrates this is all part of G-d’s plan, then such a newspaper is supporting Judaism.”

The Rebbe emphasized the importance of maintaining a high standard of quality; otherwise people will be motivated to search for news elsewhere, defeating the entire purpose. But, while maintaining quality, the reporters and editors must always keep Judaism in the forefront of their minds, he said.

I asked him about several controversial issues we were facing. For instance, there was a great debate among our editorial staff if we should report on sporting events. Many staffers opposed the idea because sports have absolutely no correlation with religion and therefore, they felt, such reporting does not belong in a religious newspaper. (more…)

The Show Must Go On

22 June 2016

After I got married in 1961, I got involved with the Lubavitch community in Montreal, Canada, where we were living.

One of the first issues that came up was the lack of any kind of entertainment venues for the community – such as movies or theater productions. So, in order to fix that, I helped start a drama group with the aim of producing plays for women. Once a year around Purim time, we would stage a play with the proceeds going to Maot Chittim (the so-called “Wheat Fund” which provided poor families with Passover necessities).

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Not only was the religious community served by these shows, many non-observant Jews got involved as well. They auditioned for parts in the plays and, in the process, we all became friends. In this way we were able to get to know people whom we’d never have met otherwise. And, as the rehearsals took place three or four nights a week, in the course of working so closely together, we had a lot of influence on them.

The shows were done quite professionally. We hired directors and musicians, and the scripts were written by Mrs. Golda Schwei, who adapted Broadway musicals, rewriting them and giving them a Jewish theme. For instance, we took The Sound of Music and called it The Sound of Torah. We kept the music, but we rewrote the lyrics. The result was a classy production, and our first two performances were filled to the capacity.

Of course, we sent the Rebbe a ticket each time, and each time, he sent us a letter wishing us success. As well, when he learned that some people ridiculed our efforts, he sent us a letter of support.

After four years of doing this, we realized that we had to stop. It just took too much effort. For fourth months, while we were rehearsing, we were consumed by the project. During this time, our husbands had to watch the kids. We’d be running out seven o’clock each night, and our husbands had to do the homework with the kids and put them to sleep. For those ladies whose husbands balked, it wasn’t easy.

Nevertheless, because the plays were so successful, we didn’t give up, even when it was clear we should. We kept saying, “This is going to be the last one,” but the next year we would start up again.

Then we finally decided – this is it. Our husbands were fed up; they didn’t want us doing it anymore.

But then the Rebbe stepped in. (more…)

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