What about the Chinese?

12 December 2018

I was born and raised in Brooklyn where I was educated in the public school system and attended City College, receiving a degree in civil engineering in 1965. After graduating, I served for two years in the U.S. Public Health Service, which allowed me to fulfill my military obligation and left me free to do anything I wanted.

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I then traveled to Israel, where I worked on kibbutzim and also learned in a yeshivah in Kfar Chabad. When I returned home to Brooklyn, I continued my studies at Hadar Hatorah, a Chabad yeshivah for Jews returning to Judaism.

During this time, I had an audience with the Rebbe – in December of 1970, on the occasion of my 28th birthday. In advance of that audience, I wrote the Rebbe a long letter, expressing my ambivalence about committing to the life of an Orthodox Jew. In my letter I also stated that I didn’t feel ready to marry as that would obviously commit me to a particular lifestyle.

The Rebbe welcomed me warmly and began the conversation by asking me about myself. After answering a number of his questions, I mentioned that I had written about these things in my letter. In the letter, I had questioned whether Judaism represented the truth. In response, the Rebbe told me that the Jewish people were the only people in the world who have survived from antiquity until now. I had heard this explanation previously and, as he Rebbe was talking, I thought, “What about the Chinese?” I really wanted to ask him about this but I didn’t have the chutzpah to interrupt him. (more…)

Unorthodox Approach

5 December 2018

I first became involved with Chabad as a teenager in the early 1950s, when I went to work as a counselor at the Beth Jacob Day Camp in Philadelphia, the director of which was a Chabad chasid, Rabbi Aaron Popack.  Several years later, I had to make a decision whether to accept a position teaching in an after-school Jewish studies program in a Conservative synagogue or in an Orthodox one, and Rabbi Popack was the person who suggested I solicit the Rebbe’s advice.

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So I wrote to the Rebbe, and his response to my letter was most surprising and impressive. Rather than advising me to teach in the Orthodox after-school program, which would hire a Torah observant teacher in any case, he said that if the Conservative synagogue was willing to hire me and allow me to set my own teaching agenda, then that’s the position I should accept. He said that I would see a lot of results and satisfaction from my work with the students there. I followed his advice and went on to teach in after-school programs of Conservative synagogues for almost fifty years. Over the years, I saw how right the Rebbe was – many of the families whose children were my students, began to keep more mitzvahs as a result of my influence on their children and the children’s influence on the parents.

In December of 1959 I got to meet the Rebbe in person, when my wife and I came to ask him for a blessing before our marriage. It was a very short audience, and I recall that we were very nervous. In addition to giving us his blessing, the Rebbe also advised me to recite Psalms before starting my workday. (more…)

Immigration Education

28 November 2018

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About a year after my family and I moved to the development town of Migdal HaEmek, I ran for head of the local council as part of the center-left Mapai party. I was only twenty-five years old at the time, but I won the election, serving as the head of the council for the next eighteen years – from 1959 until 1977.

During that time, the situation in the town was very difficult. Migdal HaEmek had been founded in 1953 as part of an initiative to build development towns in Israel for the purpose of settling immigrants flocking to the new state. As such, Migdal HaEmek absorbed immigrants from thirty-two different countries, but there wasn’t enough employment for all the people that came. Therefore, my efforts were directed toward developing employment opportunities as well as education venues.

My efforts in education were greatly aided by Rabbi Yitzchak Grossman who came to Migdal HaEmek in 1964 and with whom I forged a strong bond. He established the Migdal Ohr institutions, where thousands of children and youth are educated today, many from troubled homes around the country. (more…)

Love is the Real Bottom Line

21 November 2018

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I was born in 1925 in Belarus to a Chabad family – in fact, my father had come from Yekaterinoslav, the town where the Rebbe’s father served as rabbi and where the Rebbe lived as a boy.

When I say the Rebbe, I am speaking about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. But during my youth, “the Rebbe” meant the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn who, in 1927, sent our family to Hebron, Israel, where my father went to work as a specialized kosher butcher in charge of deveining.

In August of 1929, the Previous Rebbe visited Jerusalem and, naturally, my father was thrilled to go there to greet him. After a meaningful audience, he asked the Rebbe to bless him that “m’zol zach vider zehn – we should meet again” – and the Rebbe did as he asked.

Upon leaving, my father realized that he had left something behind, so he went back in to get it and, of course, saw the Rebbe again. Realizing this, he asked the Rebbe for a second time to bless him that they should meet again. But the Rebbe declined. Instead, he said, “we are seeing each other now.” My father repeated his request a third time, but the Rebbe declined once more. (more…)

The Impossible Kiddush

8 November 2018

When we first immigrated to Canada from Holland in 1951, we settled in Toronto. It took some months before we could buy our own home, and our initial accommodations were very primitive – in fact, we lived in an abandoned house which the Jewish community planned to make into a mikveh. But the place was free and it was temporary, so we made do.

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We were a family of ten children. I was already twenty years old, and so I went to work, while my younger siblings went to school. The two youngest ones stayed home with my mother – Obi, who was three, and the baby, Amina, who was not quite two at the time.

It was hard on my mother, because the house had no modern facilities and, to do the laundry, she had to boil water in a big pot on the stove, then haul it upstairs to the bathroom which was on the second floor. One day, when she was going back and forth, she returned upstairs to find Amina submerged in the pot of boiling water!

In a panic, my mother grabbed her and she immediately saw that her skin was coming off her. She wrapped Amina in a sheet, and rushed her to the Hospital for Sick Children. I don’t know how she managed this, because she didn’t speak English, but she ran out into the street screaming, and people helped her.

Later that same day – which was Thursday, November 22, 1951 – I was sent to the hospital to talk to the doctors because I was the only one in the family who was fluent in English, having attended the Bais Yaakov seminary in London. The doctors’ prognosis was grim. “Tell your parents that there is no hope,” they said. “This child is going to die. She is not going to live out the day.” (more…)

Nixon’s List

1 November 2018

I was born in Russia right after World War Two ended. It was very hard being Jewish under the Soviet regime; although we managed to practice Judaism, everything had to be secret, everything had to be done behind closed doors.

Thanks to the Rebbe’s assistance, my grandparents got out in 1958 and came to Israel. The Rebbe had started to get Jews out around that time when, with Nikita Khrushchev as premier, the Soviets had become more sensitive to international pressure. The Rebbe did things quietly, without fanfare. He ran an entire Jewish underground under their noses and got away with it.

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I left with my parents in 1968, but whereas they settled in Israel, I came to study at the Chabad Headquarters in Brooklyn.

While I was in yeshivah there, my parents came to New York for an audience with the Rebbe. I remember that my mother broke down in tears when she told the Rebbe that her sister couldn’t get out of Russia. Her sister’s husband had been in jail for eight years for teaching Torah, and my mother was certain there was no way that the KGB would let someone like that go. At the same time, he was unemployable as he could not find a job that would let him take off for Shabbat, and the family was in dire straits.

After hearing my mother out, the Rebbe said, “If it was up to the KGB, you would still be in Russia. So why are here? Because G-d made a miracle, and He took you out. It’s true your sister needs a bigger miracle, but I ask you: To G-d, is a big miracle any harder than a small miracle? To Him, it makes no difference.”

Six months later, my mother’s sister and her whole family managed to emigrate!

After I got married in 1970, I started looking for a job – I badly wanted to be a Chabad emissary somewhere in the world. So I approached Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik, who runs the Chabad institutions in Milan, Italy, and he agreed to hire me as a kosher inspector (mashgiach) in a restaurant he operated. This was conditional on the Rebbe’s approval, of course. (more…)

Laser Vision

24 October 2018

After the Six Day War, in 1967, my wife and I decided to move from the United States to Israel with our young family. Before the move, I came over on a pilot trip and was granted a job interview at the Israeli Ministry of Defense. After they conducted a lengthy investigation, to my great joy, I was hired. I went to work for the Ministry of Defense using my skills as a Harvard-educated lawyer to negotiate contracts for the purchase of defense equipment including submarines.

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After three years of doing this, I got a better offer, and I went to my boss, the general counsel of the Ministry of Defense, Joseph Ciechanover, and told him about my plan. His response to me was, “Did you ask the Rebbe about this?”

I almost fell off my chair. Here was a man who was not religious,  sitting in front of me without a yarmulke, and he was telling me to ask the Rebbe! He went on to explain, “There are a number of us who have worked for the Ministry of the Defense for a long time and we also want to leave, but the Rebbe won’t let us.”

I didn’t know what to make of his statement at first, and only later on did I figure it out. This was in April of 1973, six months before the devastating Yom Kippur War. The Rebbe obviously anticipated that something ominous was on the horizon. A departure of key personnel in the Ministry of Defense at such a time would have been disastrous. They consulted the Rebbe – as apparently was the practice of certain Israeli government officials – and they followed his advice. As for myself, since I was not yet a chasid, I didn’t ask the Rebbe; I simply left and took the better paying job, as general counsel at Etz Lavud, a big Israeli company then selling mostly wood and plywood.

While at Etz Lavud, I came across a difficult personal issue, involving Yosef Kremerman. He was the company’s CEO as well as one of the principal shareholders, and my boss. Being a former member of the Irgun (the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces), he had signed guarantees for monies paid out to the widows of Irgun fighters, and that put a tremendous amount of financial pressure on him. I saw that this situation was affecting the company, and I was actually considering leaving. I really didn’t know what to do, so I consulted my uncle, Rabbi Leibel Kramer, who said, “This kind of question you ask the Rebbe.” (more…)

No Half and Half

17 October 2018

Mine was not an auspicious beginning. I was born in Vilna in the midst of World War Two, just a week before the German bombardment of the city began in 1941. It was difficult to assemble a minyan for my circumcision, as everyone was scared to come outdoors and, thereafter, my parents had to hide me in an orphanage while they fled the Nazis.

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My father did not survive the war, although my mother and I did. She remarried and my step-father, David Sattler, raised me like a real father, and I always considered him as such. He was a descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of the Chasidic Movement, but after the war he became a Communist. This mindset also influenced how he directed my education toward secular studies, but, while I responded to his guidance, I also had questions of my own.

After we moved to Haifa, Israel, my parents found it hard to make ends meet. In order to bolster the family finances, I started to tutor younger children. It was then that I had my first major insight. I am naturally sensitive to interpersonal relationships, so I noticed a difference between the children studying in secular schools and those studying in religious schools. The religious ones had an air of calmness, and their relations with their parents were entirely different, much more respectful.

After graduating high school in 1959, I was drafted into the IDF. During my last year in the army, I began to study mechanical engineering at the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology. Here, too, I noticed a disturbing phenomenon (more…)

The Struggling Economist

10 October 2018

Most tourists to Jerusalem know my family name – Mandelbaum – because they have visited the site where my family’s home once stood. It had been destroyed in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence, and a gate was erected on its site. During the nineteen years that Jerusalem was divided, in order to proceed from one part (the Israeli part) to the other part (occupied by Jordan), everyone had to pass through what was called – after the ruin of our home – the Mandelbaum Gate. When Jerusalem was reunited after the Six-Day War, the Mandelbaum Gate was dismantled, but the site is part of Jerusalem’s history now and most tourists are taken to see it.

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As a teenager, I served in the Israeli army but my service was cut short due to injury. For a time I studied in yeshivah, but ultimately I decided to enroll in university in order to study economy.

Why economy? Partly because I saw my family’s financial situation plummet – we were one of the wealthiest families in Jerusalem before the State of Israel was founded, but during the War of Independence, we lost almost everything and became refugees. So I saw economic issues from a personal point of view.

I studied at Hebrew University, where I received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but after I got married and started a family, I didn’t have the financial resources to continue on to a doctorate. Then one day I read about a US State Department grant program for economics students from developing countries.

Unbelievably, from among some two hundred Israelis who applied, I was the one chosen. When I asked why I was accepted, I was told that every other applicant tried to impress the selection committee with their knowledge, but I was the only one who said I didn’t know and wanted to learn.

The program of study was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; it was a very prestigious program with candidates carefully chosen by the State Department. It was an elite group and studying with them gave me extensive connections throughout the world, as all the graduates achieved very high positions. (more…)

Long Live the Revolution!

6 September 2018

As a left-wing radical in the 1960s, I was advocating an anti-war revolution, until I met the Rebbe who drafted me into an entirely different revolution – and, while doing so, changed my life.

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I grew up in the 1940s, in the home of my Yiddish-speaking grandparents. It was a kosher home, respectful of Judaism, but not a Torah-observant home. For my Bar Mitzvah, I didn’t put on tefillin although I did learn the Hebrew alphabet, but that was about it.

As a kid, I was constantly picked on, and I discovered the connection between being picked on and being Jewish. That’s when I decided that I would help other people who were being picked on and discriminated against. When I went to college at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, I joined the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). I became the president of our NAACP chapter and launched a campaign to remove racist fraternities from campus. As a result, I earned a name as a radical, a reputation which was further enhanced when I became involved in the protests against nuclear testing, and later against the Vietnam War.

I was majoring in philosophy and reading the early writings of Karl Marx, the Jewish originator of Communist theory. His writings appealed to me because Marx was very much in favor of kindness, very pro people, and very anti letting those in power take advantage of the poor. And due to his influence, I became an atheist because, as Marx famously declared, “religion is the opiate of the masses.” (more…)

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