Rabbi Menachem Hacohen

24 November 2022

There are two kinds of moshavim – Israeli agricultural settlements. A small portion of them were founded before the State of Israel by non-observant Jews; the majority, however, were founded by religious immigrants from Arab countries or by Romanian and Hungarian Jews, after 1948

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For many years, I have served as the rabbi of the Moshavim Movement, an organization once associated with the non-religious Mapai party that helped found many of these settlements in Israel. While the religious Zionist HaPoel HaMizrachi helped found perhaps 70 settlements, there are 270 Mapai moshavim. In the early days, the difference between these two groups was that the religious Zionist ones didn’t have enough money, but they did have synagogues and Torah scrolls. Meanwhile, the Mapai moshavim had more money, but not enough synagogues and not enough Torah scrolls.

So, in approximately 1960, I went to America, where there were many defunct synagogues, to collect some of their Torah scrolls for the moshavim. At the time, I was also involved with the Histadrut, Israel’s main labor union, as well as the editor of Machanayim, a magazine published by the IDF chaplaincy.

When my brother, Pinchas Peli, heard about my trip, he arranged for Rabbi Berel Levy to come pick me up from the airport. “You’re coming to my house for dinner,” Berel told me, “and then we are going out. I’ve arranged an audience for you with the Rebbe.”

That is how, just a few hours after my arrival, I came to 770, and at about 2:30 AM I went into the Rebbe’s room.

“You are Rabbi Menachem Hacohen?” asked the Rebbe. “I thought there were a few of you: One of them is the editor, one of them the Histadrut rabbi, and another the author!” (more…)

Dr. Robert Richter

16 November 2022

I was a child of the Depression, born in 1933, to a non-Orthodox household in New York. I attended medical school and went on to work at several hospitals throughout the city, becoming chief resident in general surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, as well as in academic surgery and private practice.

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My connection with the Rebbe began in 1954 after my engagement to my wife Gladys – her grandfather was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Cunin, a prominent chasid, and her parents were close with the Rebbe’s family. Being exposed to the world of Chabad, and the Rebbe in particular, was quite a revelation.

Gladys and I would join her parents to visit the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, and eventually I met the Rebbe independently. There were several occasions where I met him on the sidewalk and we stopped to talk. Later on, there were many times when the Rebbe, through his secretary or an invitation to his office, would question me on various medical matters that people had presented to him.

When my office was in downtown Brooklyn, the Rebbetzin would call to invite me over for cake and tea in the afternoon, if I wasn’t busy. The Rebbetzin’s cakes, I have to say, were a treasure; I know they were store-bought, but I have yet to find the store that made them. One afternoon, time flew by, and I was probably there for close to two hours. As I was getting ready to leave, she said, “My husband is coming home,” which I took as a cue to make my exit. (more…)

Rabbi Shmarya Katzen

10 November 2022

This story is an excerpt from the book My Story 2: Lives Changed. Get your copy today at www.jemstore.com.

My story begins at the University of Maryland, where I was studying engineering and where I was first introduced to Chabad. Although my parents weren’t religious, I had grown up in a traditional Jewish atmosphere, and I had gravitated to other Jews at the university, occasionally participating in Hillel House programs. It was there, in 1964, that two graduate students named Larry Levine and Joel Sinsky suggested that I explore Chabad.

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I had no idea what Chabad was, what Lubavitch was, but I felt very empty inside – something within me was yearning to be satisfied – and I followed their suggestion to go to New York for Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Arriving at the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, I sensed the excitement in the air, as though it was only ten minutes ago that G-d gave the Torah to the Children of Israel.

I was warmly welcomed in the home of Rabbi Yossel Goldstein, where I spent the holiday. I found it to be an amazing experience. I remember sitting at the holiday table while Rabbi Goldstein spoke words of Torah and feeling that something very mystical was going on. He said that every soul comes down into this world with a mission to fulfill, and wherever you find yourself is not an accident, but an act of Divine Providence – you are supposed to be right there. (more…)

Mr. Moshe Ishon

2 November 2022

I was born in Poland, in 1929, into a family connected to the Belz and Dinov chasidic courts. When the war broke out, I was ten years old, and on the same day the Germans invaded, we were expelled into the Soviet Union, and eventually wound up in Irkutsk, deep in the frozen Siberian taiga.

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One day, a young bearded man appeared at the door of our home, to propose that I join an underground yeshivah. My parents, who did all they could to provide their children with a Torah education, even under those trying circumstances, leapt at the opportunity. That young fellow was a Chabad chasid.

Eventually after the war, we emigrated to Israel in 1950. There, I became reacquainted with Chabad, attending a Tanya class as a young man. After my military service, I went into journalism and again encountered Chabad, when I got to know Reb Berke Wolf, who served brilliantly as the movement’s spokesman in Israel.

In 1971 I visited the United States, still working as a journalist, but under the auspices of the Israeli foreign ministry, and put in a request to make a stop at Chabad headquarters.

Arriving at 770 at the appointed hour, I was informed by the Rebbe’s secretary that a quarter of an hour had been set aside for my meeting. The Rebbe then received me in his room with a smile, and invited me to sit. We ended up speaking much longer than fifteen minutes.

It had been four years since the Six Day War, and the Rebbe expressed his surprise that the Israeli government was not annexing Chevron. “There are several properties in Chevron that belonged to my predecessors,” he said, “and I would like the government to work towards recovering them.” (more…)

Rabbi Aharon Halperin

27 October 2022

While studying as a young man in the Chabad yeshivah in Lod, Israel, a few of us senior students developed a strong desire to spend time in the Rebbe’s court, in the yeshivah at 770.

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At the time, our entire yeshivah numbered less than forty students and there were ten of us, so the faculty was reluctant to let us go. But then in 1961, Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, our dean of chasidic studies, proposed to the Rebbe a kind of student exchange program. While we traveled to the Rebbe, a group of American yeshivah students would come to strengthen the yeshivah in Lod. The Rebbe gave his assent.

The next step was getting student visas. The yeshivah in New York sent us affidavits declaring that they were assuming responsibility for us during our stay in the US. Then, our dean, Rabbi Efraim Wolf, began working on securing exit visas and conscription deferments from the Israeli military authorities, while we gathered the funds for our airfare. In those days, a ticket to the US went for some 1,200 Israeli pounds—about five times the average monthly salary!

We had asked for one year’s leave, allowing us to experience all of the festivals and special occasions in the Rebbe’s court, but the army granted us only one month. We decided to go anyway, and then apply for an extension from there. We joined a chartered flight of Chabad chasidim headed to New York for the holidays of the month of Tishrei.

In those days, the Rebbe would receive visitors for a private audience twice—once on arrival, around Rosh Hashanah, and then again before their return at the end of the month.

When it was time for my audience, I brought something with me: Outside my home back in Kfar Chabad, Israel, there were a few pomegranate trees growing, and I had picked the finest five I could find, as a gift to the Rebbe from the Holy Land. When his secretary Rabbi Laibel Groner presented them to him, the Rebbe instructed him to “leave one here, and bring the rest upstairs.” Upstairs in 770 was the Previous Rebbe’s apartment where the Rebbe would have the festival meals in those years. The first pomegranate, I assume, he took home. (more…)

Rabbi Shmuel Pesach Bogomilsky

20 October 2022

Every year, as a yeshivah student in 770, I would participate in the summer visitation program run by Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, Chabad’s education office. It was known as “Merkos Shlichus.”

In 1959, I was sent to the Caribbean Islands, together with my friend Yisroel Chaim Lazar. We started in Aruba, then went to Curacao, Trinidad, Barbados, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and ended up in Jamaica.

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In Trinidad, two days before the fast on the 9th of Av, we mentioned to one of the local Jews that we were hoping to have enough people for the day’s communal prayers. “You know what?” he said, “you’re about to go to Barbados. There you’ll sooner be able to make a minyan.” Barbados only had twelve Jewish families, but he explained that it was a more close-knit community. Following his advice, we flew to Barbados the next day.

Back then, before arriving somewhere on Merkos Shlichus you didn’t know where to go, or whom to speak to. If you were lucky, you had a few names and addresses from someone who had been there before but, in this case, we didn’t even have that. We had, however, been interviewed by the Trinidad Guardian, which was like the New York Times of the Caribbean, so readers on Barbados knew that we were coming.

And so, when we landed in Barbados, a man greeted us at the airport with a message: “My master sent me here to see you. He said that I should take you to his house.”

We were very happy for the welcome and went to the house, where we waited for this fellow’s master to appear. After twenty minutes or so, in walked a Jewish man – you could see it on his face – who started speaking in Yiddish. “I read in the paper that you are emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and have come here to strengthen Judaism,” he began. “Let me tell you who I am.” (more…)

Rabbi Nissen Mangel

13 October 2022

As a young man, I studied in the Lubavitcher yeshivah in Montreal, but I would spend some of the holidays in New York. Once, in the late ‘50s, I came to New York on the first intermediate day of Sukkot. As always, the Rebbe held a big gathering – a Simchat Beit Hasho’eva farbrengen, as we would call it – that night in the sukkah. Thousands of people used to come for this event, and I was one of them. The next day, I was summoned by the Rebbe’s secretary Rabbi Hodakov.

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“The Rebbe saw you last night at the farbrengen,” Rabbi Hodakov tells me in his office, “and he asked me: ‘What is Nissan Mangel doing here in Crown Heights? He should be in Lakewood!”

“What do you mean?” I wondered out loud. Lakewood, New Jersey, is a bastion of Lithuanian non-chasidic Jewry in America, its Beth Medrash Govoha a famous yeshivah. The Rebbe had sent me there several times before to share teachings of Chasidut with the students, faculty and members of its Kollel for older students.

But this time, I tried making a case to stay in Crown Heights:

“I wasn’t here for Rosh Hoshanah and I wasn’t here for Yom Kippur; now that I’ve come to be with the Rebbe for Sukkot, I’m being sent to Lakewood?”

“Are you arguing with the Rebbe?” Rabbi Hodakov replied. “The Rebbe says you should go!”

Rabbi Hodakov instructed me to take along a lulav and etrog; I would be going for a few days, and of course I would need to perform this mitzvah every day of Sukkot. In addition, he also told me to bring hoshanos, the spray of myrtle used in the prayers on Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot. (more…)

Rabbi Tuvia Blau

6 October 2022

In 1962, I had the great fortune to travel from the Holy Land to the Rebbe for the High Holidays and have a private audience with him. I had exchanged several letters with the Rebbe since coming close to Chabad as a young man, but this was the first time in my life that I would be meeting him in person.

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Before leaving, my teacher and mentor Rabbi Moshe Weber asked that I tell the Rebbe about a certain yeshivah student from Jerusalem who had gone to study in 770 and who, despite years having passed, had not yet managed to marry. The assumption was that the Rebbe was unaware of this situation, so I was asked to solicit the Rebbe’s blessings and assistance on his behalf.

When I mentioned the name I had been given, the Rebbe immediately responded: “When it comes to finding a match, one has to look at what is important, and not at trivial matters. This fellow, however, is looking at the most trifling of trivialities; what’s the surprise that he hasn’t found anyone?”

Now, the yeshivah student in question had been unaware of our intervention, and when I met him afterwards, I asked why, despite his relatively advanced age, he was still single. As he had it, it was because the matchmakers were suggesting to set him up with some girls of Sephardic descent, and he thought they wouldn’t be right for him. This, apparently, was what the Rebbe meant by “trivialities.”

Later, this fellow married an American, a woman who had come from a family that was not religious. Unfortunately, they were ill suited for each other, and the marriage was short lived. But about a year later, he met and married another woman – from a Sephardic family – with whom he set up a Jewish home and enjoyed many long, happy years together. (more…)

Rabbi Avraham Friedman

28 September 2022

My father, a survivor of Auschwitz and a member of the Carpathian Jewish community of Chist, passed away shortly after my fifth birthday, and two years later, my mother married a Lubavitcher, Rabbi Refoel Wilshansky. It was 1972, and from then on, we became Lubavitcher chasidim. We moved from Boro Park to Crown Heights, where I was enrolled in a Lubavitch school, but acclimating to the way of life took some time.

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Along with a new school and new friends, I also had three wonderful new step-brothers. One of them, Itche Wilshansky, (today the dean of a Chabad yeshivah in Tzfat) had a special warmth about him, and he took me to one of my first farbrengens when I was still seven. His regular spot at these gatherings was right near the Rebbe’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary.

The Rebbe would sit at a long table, and near the end of it was Rabbi Gurary’s place, where he had a little table of his own. There was a ledge on the bottom of this table, and not knowing exactly what to do, I sat on the ledge, just above the floor. From that vantage point, I had an uninterrupted view of the Rebbe, who was just ten or fifteen feet away.

Throughout the farbrengen, the chasidim sang with great joy, and at one point, I remember the Rebbe turned around, zeroed in on me, and started clapping. I didn’t quite know how to respond. Then, Itche grabbed me and lifted me up, helping me dance along to the tune the chasidim were singing. The Rebbe gave me a tremendous smile as he clapped, and when the Rebbe smiled, the whole room lit up.

The whole thing probably took just a few seconds, but that personal smile from the Rebbe has accompanied me all my life. Please G-d, it will last me until Moshiach comes and we’ll see the Rebbe again.

Five years later, on Yom Kippur of 1976, another unique experience brought me even closer to the Rebbe. (more…)

Rabbi Yoske Sossonko

22 September 2022

Whenever people hear that my family left Russia in 1964, they tell me that it’s impossible. As those who are familiar with Soviet history know, Jews weren’t able to leave during that period. But when our relatives in the free world – my grandfather and others – asked the Rebbe to pray for our release, he assured them that we would come out of Russia without a problem. Somehow, my parents, Reb Asher and Fraida Menia, and myself were indeed allowed to leave that year, along with a number of other chasidim.

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When we arrived in Israel, my father wrote to ask the Rebbe whether he should immediately travel to New York – he had never seen the Rebbe before – but was told to first reunite with his relatives in Israel, whom he hadn’t seen in years. He eventually came for Tishrei, the month of the High Holidays.

In those days, guests who spent the holidays in the Rebbe’s court were granted two private audiences, one on arrival, and another before leaving. When my father came to the Rebbe for the first time, he brought a present from Russia: a carton of Kazbek cigarettes.

“I don’t smoke,” the Rebbe told my father, “but since this is something a Jew from Russia has given me, I will accept it.” He then took the carton and put it in the drawer of his desk.

The Rebbe also told my father something that, at the time, he couldn’t comprehend: The three families that had just left Russia had opened up the “pipelines,” and soon all the Jews of Russia would be able to leave. Standing there and listening, my father could not understand how this was even remotely possible, but he believed the Rebbe.

Just a couple years later, there was an earthquake in the city of Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, where we had lived. The houses in the city were built with mud-brick, not concrete, and almost all of them were destroyed. As a result, the Russian government decided that the Jews of Tashkent all had permission to leave. And only a few years after that, the ban on immigration to Israel was lifted entirely. (more…)

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