Safe Skies

19 April 2017

In the late 1970s I was living in New York, studying for my Masters in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, from where I received my rabbinic ordination. At the time, my uncle, David Shine, was also living in New York while directing the North American branch of El Al. His job was to oversee all of the El Al departments in the United States, although his main focus was the New York/Tel Aviv connection.

Click here for full-color print version

At some point we met up, and he suggested that we go visit the Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway and see a Chabad gathering. My uncle was a Holocaust survivor, who was not observant in the slightest and didn’t even consider himself to be a believer in G-d. But he had many contacts in the Chabad community, due to the Chabad presence at the airport, where the chasidim sought to reach out to their fellow Jews near the El Al gates. He respected what they were doing and, whenever he had a chance, he would help them in any way he could.

Even though I didn’t have any prior associations with Chabad, I accepted his invitation and decided to go with him to see the Chabad gathering. It was when we arrived that I realized I had never seen something like it before. There were thousands of chasidim in the hall focused on the Rebbe, who sat at a large table in the middle, speaking words of Torah. My uncle didn’t come as a manager of El Al, rather he arrived as a simple person without any fanfare and, together, we blended into the large crowd.

It was a sight to behold – thousands of people crushed together, captured by the Rebbe’s personality and listening to every word that came out of his mouth. Between the Rebbe’s discourses, they would raise their cups, and the Rebbe would say l’chaim! Despite the large crowd, one could tell that every person felt as if the Rebbe was talking just to him. When we left, my uncle was very excited; he said, “You know what, let’s keep in touch and come back here another time.” (more…)

A Son’s Concern

14 April 2017

I was born in 1946 in the city of Lvov, Ukraine. Due to its close proximity to the Polish border, Lvov became the gateway for smuggling Jews out of the Soviet Union. My father was an artist, so he would create counterfeit passports for Jews who wanted to escape to the free world via Poland. During the year I was born, he was caught and sentenced to harsh labor in the Siberian Gulag.

Click here for full-color print version

In 1971, when we were living in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, my brother, Shalom Ber, received an exit visa and immigrated to the United States. When he arrived, he sent the Rebbe a picture of the resting place of his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had been the rabbi of Yekatrinoslav, Ukraine, when he was arrested by the Soviets for religious activism. He was then exiled to Kazakhstan, where he passed away in 1944 in the city of Alma Ata (which is about 400 miles from Tashkent).

Later, when Shalom Ber went to visit the Chabad Headquarters in New York, the Rebbe – who never had the chance to see his father’s resting place – thanked him for the picture and asked him many questions about it: “Who is buried next to my father?” … “Is the cemetery Jewish?” … and so on.

Noticeable in the picture, which the Rebbe studied closely, was the woeful state of the headstone. It had deteriorated so badly that even some of the words were illegible. Suddenly the Rebbe said, “You told me that you still have family in the Soviet Union. Would you ask them if they could repair my father’s headstone?” (more…)

Extended Family

29 March 2017

My name is Israel Drazin, and I am a rabbi, biblical scholar, and a lawyer. My name is rather well-known in the military because I defended the chaplaincy of the US armed forces in court against two lawyers who claimed it was a violation of the establishment of religion clause of the US Constitution. I won and, as a result, President Ronald Reagan elevated me to the rank of brigadier general.

Click here for full-color print version

The story I will relate here happened in 1986, when I had the privilege of meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the time, I was living in Columbia, Maryland, and because the only Orthodox synagogue in the area was the Chabad House, I began an association with the young rabbi there – Rabbi Hillel Baron. It was he who suggested that I might like to attend a farbrengen in New York and meet the Rebbe.

So I put on my uniform and went there. During the farbrengen, one of the chasidim came over and said that the Rebbe wanted me to join him on the dais. When I came up, the Rebbe spoke to me in a mixture of English and Yiddish, which I understood. He blessed me to be “a chaplain in God’s army” and then he said something startling:

“May the Almighty bless you … to influence the gentile soldiers, as well, in fulfilling the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach – the Seven Noahide Laws. Certainly the other gentile chaplains will not be upset that you are mixing into their affairs, because you will actually be helping them. And all this will help bring our righteous Mashiach.”

“I will try to do that,” I responded, but it was a non-committal statement. I was thinking to myself, “It’s absurd that the Rebbe would expect me to stand before non-Jews and speak to them about the Seven Noahide Laws.”

While I knew, of course, about that these basic commandments  for all of humanity to live by – prohibiting blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, murder, theft and cruelty to animals, and mandating the establishment of courts of law – I could not imagine myself preaching this as a general in the armed forces. As far as I was concerned, it was a “no go” right from the very beginning.

But, when I had a chance to think about it some more, I said to myself, “Those things that seem to be the most difficult in life are the very things that one should try and do.” So I decided to try and do it.

After some thought, I developed a speech, which I tried it out first on a small Christian audience – and they liked it. The biggest compliment I received was that they wanted to invite me to address the Easter service. (more…)

Jewish Artistry

27 March 2017

I come from Kimyat, a small village in the Carpathian Mountains, from a region that has been variously controlled by Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and (currently) Ukraine.

In 1944, I was taken, along with my family, from Kimyat to various Nazi concentration camps, where my parents and my brothers perished though I survived. Three years after the war ended – once the State of Israel was declared – I volunteered for the Israeli Army and then worked for the Israeli Merchant Marine.

Click here for full-color print version

In 1956, I came to Los Angeles where I got married and started a family. Although I was raised in a very religious home in Eastern Europe, I moved away from Yiddishkeit in the United States. Nonetheless, when it came time for putting my kids in school, my wife and I chose the Hillel Hebrew Academy, and we also joined Beth Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue in the area.

After a time, I befriended Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, the Rebbe’s emissary in LA, and began to help him out financially. As part of my association with Chabad – first with Rabbi Cunin and later with Rabbi Shlomo Aaron Kazarnovsky from New York – I embarked on a number of projects in the city. One of these was building a mikveh, another was building a school.

Around that time – it was in the late 1970s – Rabbi Kazarnovsky talked me into making a visit to New York to meet the Rebbe. I took my whole family with me – my wife and my four sons.

When we went in to meet the Rebbe, I expected we would say hello, get a blessing and say good-bye. In fact, I told my driver that we’d be out in ten to fifteen minutes. But that’s not what happened. It turned out to be a very long meeting.

First of all, the Rebbe looked at me and started talking to me in Yiddish, asking me about my background and my Torah learning. He figured out right away that I was a Holocaust survivor, and he urged me to write a book about what I had witnessed. “Don’t hire somebody else to write it; that won’t be good enough. You should do it yourself, and I am sure you will do a good job,” he said.

And I did just that. I wrote the original in English and it was published under the title: A Holocaust Survivor in the Footsteps of his Past. I then sent it to Yad Vashem where it was translated into Hebrew.

Then the Rebbe asked me what I had done in Israel. During the course of that conversation, I got the impression that the Rebbe had no political opinions where Israel was concerned. However, he was adamant that all of the Holy Land belonged to the Jews, and that no one had the right to give any part of it away. He said to me that the development of the Land was a partnership of secular and religious Jews – those who would sit and learn Torah and those who would work in the fields. (more…)

Resignation Not Accepted

8 March 2017

I was born in Israel but my parents moved to Crown Heights when I was only four, and I had the good fortune of growing up in the Lubavitch fold, in close proximity to the Rebbe.

In 1983, my wife Rivka and I had been married for a year already and we were exploring options of becoming Chabad emissaries someplace in the world.

Click here for full-color print version

As a result, we set our sights on Columbia University and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. So we asked the Rebbe for his blessing and agreement. The Rebbe responded that this was a good idea, provided my wife agreed. Of course she did, and we went to work.

I started by setting up a hot dog stand at the gates of Columbia University, which was my outreach vehicle, and I also gave a class in Earl Hall on the Tanya, the seminal work by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the 18th century founder of the Chabad Movement. Eventually we began expanding to other programs as well.

One year, when the holiday of Purim was approaching, I copied an idea from a fellow Chabad emissary by producing a Purim flyer which advertised a UPS (United Purim Service.) The flyer proclaimed “This is the whole Megilla” across the top, and which then went on to say that many Jews heard of Magilla Gorilla but most Jews never heard of the real “Megilla.” Magilla Gorilla was a popular kids’ cartoon in the 1960s, featuring a gorilla dressed in a bow tie, shorts held up by suspenders and an undersized derby hat.

It also said that, on Purim, Jews share in joy and revelry, and among many other things, it offered two kinds of Shalach Manot gift options — a $4.95 and $6.95, one was with grape juice, one was with wine — to be delivered by a clown on the campus during the Holiday of Purim.

I printed this flyer and, because I had a custom to submit everything to the Rebbe, I sent this also, never expecting any kind of response. But, within a few days, I was amazed to get a call from the Rebbe’s secretary that the Rebbe had edited my flyer. I went to Chabad Headquarters and saw that the Rebbe had made some significant changes.

First, the Rebbe crossed out “Magilla Gorilla.” I’m not sure why the Rebbe objected to it, but I suppose that he didn’t think it was necessary to mention pop-culture, especially in this context. Where the flyer said that “most Jews don’t know what a real Magilla is” the Rebbe crossed out “most” and substituted “not all.” He clearly didn’t want us making this kind of judgment about our fellow Jews. And where the flyer mentioned “joy and revelry,” the Rebbe crossed out “revelry.” Obviously, “revelry” has a negative connotation. (more…)

A Lantern in a Quagmire

22 February 2017

I first met the Rebbe in 1962, as a result of my association with Rabbi Nachman Sudak.

I had recently become religious in 1958 and connected with Chabad in London, where Rabbi Sudak worked as the Rebbe’s emissary. I have a very inquiring and skeptical mind, and Rabbi Sudak knew how to speak to me. He never tried to pacify me with simplistic answers, and I really appreciated the time and care he took in answering my questions.

Click here for full-color print version

It was Rabbi Sudak who told me about the Rebbe. He said that the Rebbe was a very holy man who had a deep understanding of secular matters as well.

At first, I was not interested in meeting him. The rumors I heard that the Rebbe could work miracles made me suspicious – was he a charlatan or a trickster? But my curiosity got the better of me.

I remember walking into 770, the Chabad World Headquarters, and the Rebbe turning to look at me. It was as if he saw right through me, and I felt like such a fool for having had the thoughts I’d had about him. I almost wished that the earth would open up to swallow me whole.

But that didn’t happen. The Rebbe smiled at me, and I sensed an aura of spirituality around him but, even more than that, an aura of goodness.

When I went in for my personal audience with him, I had with me the piece of paper on which I had been instructed to write my questions. My first question concerned my Hebrew name, which is Betzalel; I was supposedly named after my grandfather whose name was Solomon, so I wanted to know if I was using the wrong name.

The Rebbe invited me to sit down, and even before I handed in my questions, he asked me, “What is your Hebrew name?”

“It is Betzalel, but I think that must be wrong,” I said, and I explained about my grandfather.

“If you were called up to the Torah with the name Betzalel and on your marriage contract it said Betzalel, then there is no question that your name is Betzalel,” he responded. (more…)

The Early Years – Paris

15 February 2017

During the 1930s, the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn – who was then living in Poland and quite ill after his ordeals in Russia – would often visit a health clinic in Paris. And, on Shabbos, he would stay at the home of my parents, Reb Yankel and Baila Lax.

Click here for full-color print version

Our home was on Boulevard Saint Denis, very close to the synagogue of the diamond dealers and furriers, of which my father was one. After services, the Previous Rebbe would remain in the synagogue until the afternoon. When he would finally return, I would help him put away his prayer shawl, and I would see that it was wet with tears. He was really a holy man.

At the time I was about twenty years old, and I clearly recall the Previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who would later become the Rebbe, visiting him often in our home.

The Rebbe and his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, were then living in a district in Paris where no Jews lived in those days. But the rents there were cheaper, much cheaper than in the center of Paris. This location suited him very well, as it was close to where he was studying mathematics and engineering, and it allowed him to make it home for Shabbat on Fridays.

Once I met him at the Sainte-Geneviève Library, where I went to translate something from Greek into French for school. This was the biggest library in Paris, located in the Latin Quarter, near all the universities. At this library they had handwritten editions of the Jerusalem Talmud, as well as the letters of Maimonides in his own handwriting. Indeed, theirs was one of the biggest collections of Judaica in Europe, which is undoubtedly why the Rebbe was there.

I sat down not far from him and began laboring over my translation, which was very hard. After a time I got fed up – what did I need this Greek for? I decided to tear out a page from the book and take it home, in order to continue at my leisure. As I started to do this, I saw the Rebbe motioning to me. He was wagging his finger in disapproval. So I stopped.

Some years later, just when my father finished the mourning period for his own father, my brother passed away. He had gone swimming with some friends and drowned. When the Previous Rebbe heard of this, he came to console my father who was naturally bereft, having lost his father and his son in such a short period of time. (more…)

Spiritual Guests

8 February 2017

From the time I reached marriageable age, I’d been seriously searching for the right match. Although I grew up in a strong Lubavitch family and was educated in religious schools – in a Bais Yaakov High School and Seminary – I had also pursued a university education, and I wasn’t sure that the right shidduch for me would be found in Chabad yeshivah circles. Of course, I wanted a husband who was a Torah scholar, but who also had a broad knowledge of the world.

Click here for full-color print version

My grandmother used to tease me, “What do you want – a rabbi, a doctor, and a lawyer rolled into one? He hasn’t been born yet!”

I went out on dates that initially looked promising, but I wasn’t sure if any of the suggested prospects were really right for me. These failures were filling me with anxiety, so at a personal audience with the Rebbe, I voiced my concerns. The Rebbe’s response reassured me: “Ihr zolt mir nit fargssen einladen tzu der chassunah – “You shouldn’t forget to invite me to the wedding.” I understood him to mean that it was going to happen soon.

One day my brother, who was studying at the Chabad yeshivah in 770 Eastern Parkway, came home and said, “There’s a new student – a young man from England who is very learned and who also has a good English education. Would you like to meet him?” I agreed, and my father went to speak with this young man’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Mendel Futerfas. However, Rabbi Futerfas informed him that the young man in question was not dating as yet since, for the time being, he was committed to Torah learning. In any case, there was already a queue of families interested in him. My father answered jokingly, “Well then, we will join the queue.”

About a year later, a friend of mine, Gitty Fisher, called me up. “If you are not dating anyone,” she said, “I would like to recommend a shidduch for you.” Then she mentioned the young man’s name – Binyomin Cohen. And I remembered that this was the same person my brother had talked about, so I agreed to meet him.

On the third date, my husband was ready to propose but I needed more time, not being quite as decisive as he was. While I was deliberating, my life went on as usual. One evening before Purim I went to a Torah lecture and returned quite late. I went up the stairs quietly so as not to awaken anyone, but was surprised to find my parents and brothers still up and sitting around the kitchen table.

“What’s happening?” I asked. (more…)

Facing Conflict With a Smile

25 January 2017

I was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. My mother was a religious woman, the daughter of a Jerusalem rabbi, but my father didn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism. That all changed, thanks to the Rebbe, as I will explain.

Click here for full-color print version

Because of my mother’s insistence, I received a religious education. When it came time to enter the army, there was a surplus of female soldiers so I signed up for “national service” and was sent to Ein HaNatziv, a moderately religious kibbutz, and I ended up staying there even after my service ended. That is where I met my husband, got married and started a family.

All the while, we tried to be ultra-religious. As a result my children faced a lot of scorn and ridicule from their peers. When it became unbearable for us to continue, we decided that it was time to leave.

Previously, I had met two ladies who were emissaries of Chabad – Rochel Dunin and Rivka Sassonkin and through them I developed a close connection with Chabad. And I decided that I would first travel to New York to receive the Rebbe’s blessing before the big move. This was in 1976, a month after Rosh Hashanah.

On that occasion, my father – who had since changed his attitude toward Judaism – joined me for the trip to New York. I told him, “Go to the Rebbe when he distributes wine from his cup – what is called Kos Shel Bracha – and get a blessing. My father agreed, even though it meant standing in line for a very long time. Indeed, he stood in line for three-and-a-half hours. When he reached the Rebbe, he said, “Ziva asked for some wine for her and her family.”

The Rebbe asked, “Who is Ziva?”

Having stood in line for as long as he did, my father got flustered and didn’t know how to answer. Somehow my married name – Pash – just escaped his mind.

After several excruciating moments the Rebbe finally said, “Do you mean Ziva Pash?” Apparently, the Rebbe remembered my name from the nine letters I wrote him in the past. Then he handed my father a bottle of vodka – in order so say l’chaim – and he blessed him to have nice grandchildren. (more…)

The One Hour Mission

11 January 2017

I grew up on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the 1950s. Though Crown Heights is mostly Chabad-Lubavitch, my family was not – we were just “plain Orthodox.” However, due to the proximity and fame of the Rebbe, we would go see him twice a year during his public appearances.

Click here for full-color print version

One of those times was Simchat Torah, when we would go to see the Rebbe and his chasidim dancing with the Torah into the wee hours of the morning. The other time was on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when he conducted the Tashlich ceremony at the pond in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Thousands of people would march with the Rebbe, singing their hearts out, and I recall this making a tremendous impression on me as a child.

Those were my childhood memories of the Rebbe. When I grew up, I moved away from Crown Heights. I went to university, became a psychologist and, after getting married, became a U.S. Air Force chaplain in Alaska.

In 1973, while on my way to take up my post for the first time, my wife and I drove across the country, stopping among other places in St. Paul, Minnesota. There we met two Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Moshe Feller and Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum, who upon hearing about my deployment insisted that I inform the Rebbe.

I obliged and wrote to the Rebbe about my upcoming mission. In my letter, I noted the problem of building in Alaska a mikveh – the ritual pool, without which a Jewish community cannot function. The U.S. Army had allotted the money, but I could not find anyone who knew how to build a mikveh, at least not anyone willing to come to Alaska.

When I finished writing the letter I handed it to them, and they asked me if there was anything they could do to help me. I confided my problem to them and to my shock, the younger emissary, Rabbi Grossbaum told me that he makes a living doing exactly this – designing mikvehs and overseeing their construction – and he would love to help me.

“Here I am looking all over America for someone to build me a mikveh,” I thought. “And, before they even put the stamp on the letter to the Rebbe, my problem is solved!” (more…)

Next Page »