Rabbi Chaim Yitzchak Cohen

18 January 2023

It was the first time I had traveled to the United States. The year before, I had been involved in setting up various institutions associated with the Sadigura chasidic group in Israel, and in 1972 I made a fundraising trip to the US to help put them on firmer financial footing.

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Although I am a Ruzhiner chasid, I had corresponded with the Lubavitcher Rebbe years before. As a young boy, just before my Bar Mitzvah, I took it upon myself to write to the Rebbe, and had the privilege of receiving a letter with his blessing in response. Now, the day before returning to Israel, I decided that I could not leave without seeing him. I called his secretary, Rabbi Leibel Groner, introduced myself, and explained that I want to have an audience with the Rebbe.

“You can come at 2 AM,” he told me after consulting his calendar, “in six weeks.”

I explained that I was going back to Israel, but he insisted there was nothing he could do: “It’s completely filled up.”

Still, I decided to go to 770. I arrived at ten to nine and found a line of people waiting to see the Rebbe. Rabbi Groner came over and greeted me.

When I told him who I was, he immediately recalled our conversation. I assured him that I had only come to see the Rebbe’s holy face – perhaps just as the door opened between appointments. He allowed me to stand nearby, and then he was called away to his office. Just then, the Rebbe’s door opened, and out came three people. This, I thought, was my chance, and I walked right into the Rebbe’s room.

I extended my hand in greeting, and the Rebbe asked my name. (more…)

Mr. David Rivlin

11 January 2023

I am a sixth-generation Jerusalemite: On my father’s side, I’m descended from the famous Lithuanian branch of the Rivlin family that  emigrated to the Land of Israel together with a group of disciples of the Vilna Gaon in 1809. On my mother’s side I come from the Chabad branch of the same family; my great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef Rivlin, was a pioneering member of the Chabad settlement in Chevron, which was founded a few years later, in 1821.

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In my youth, before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, I studied in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, while also being drafted into the Jewish police brigade that operated under the British Mandate. My studies were, however, interrupted by the War of Independence, when I served as an officer in the IDF’s Communications Corps, and afterwards I traveled to England and completed my studies in the University of London.

In 1950, I was one of the founding members of the Galei Tzahal radio station founded on David Ben Gurion’s initiative, and from there I was invited to work for the Foreign Ministry, where I would go on to serve for thirty-four years.

While in the foreign service, I was sent for two postings to New York, the first as vice-consul from 1958-1962, and the second as consul-general from 1971-1975. Because my responsibilities included Soviet Jewish affairs, one of the first people I met in New York was the Rebbe; I knew how close this subject was to his heart.

Already in my first audience with him, the Rebbe surprised me by noting my family’s connection to the Rebbes of Chabad; one of the sons of Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef Rivlin married the daughter of Rabbi Dovber, the second leader of Lubavitch. It seems that he was well acquainted with the history of the Rivlin family, and knew about my mixed lineage of chasidim and their opponents – the mitnagdim.

“Tell me,” the Rebbe once asked, “when you come here today, do you come as a chasid or a mitnaged? (more…)

Rabbi Chaim Binjamini

5 January 2023

After experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust, by the kindness of G-d, I arrived in the Land of Israel in 1945. I soon joined Kibbutz Yavneh, where I managed to combine farmwork and guard duty with Torah study. At a certain point, I was approached by the Jewish Agency’s Department of Torah Education with an offer to serve as the head of a yeshivah in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Initially I balked at the idea of leaving Israel, but I consulted a few rabbis who advised me to accept.

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My wife and I reached the shores of Brazil in 1954, but when I asked the locals who came to greet us about the location of the yeshivah, they were perplexed. “A yeshivah in Rio? What are you talking about?” It seemed there had been a miscommunication; an institution devoted to full-time Torah study did not yet exist in Brazil.

I hurriedly sent word back to the Jewish Agency, only to receive their reply: “Since you’re already there, try to do what you can for the community for the agreed upon two years.”

One day, my wife and I went for a walk. As we conversed in Hebrew, a local Jewish boy overheard and took interest in us. He became the founding member of a Hebrew study group that eventually led to the opening of the “Bar-Ilan” school. After three years in Rio, we had some 600 students.

In 1959, back in Israel, I became the administrator of a farm for training young immigrants in the agricultural settlement of Shafir. While there, I got in trouble for teaching Torah subjects to the students. Concerned, the head of the local council suggested I reach out to a certain tzaddik, “a righteous man in New York” who could be consulted on such matters. After writing to this tzaddik, the Rebbe, I received a letter back from him, advising me that if I kept on teaching in a peaceful and pleasant manner, nobody would bother me. That communication turned out to be the first of many.

My connection with the Rebbe and Chabad grew stronger over the following years. In 1963, it even cost me my job at a different institution – some people didn’t approve of my connection to a chasidic sect like Chabad – but just when that happened, I got a phone call from the Jewish agency: They wanted me to come back to Bar-Ilan in Rio de Janeiro. (more…)

Rabbi Alex Stern

28 December 2022

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My late father Rabbi Yerachmiel Stern took me to my first farbrengen in 770. He was a learned man, from a family of Alexander chasidim. Back in Poland, Alexander had been one of the largest groups of chasidim in the country, but it was completely decimated in the war. Be that as it may, he wanted our family to have a chasidic influence, so he thought it would be a good idea to take me to the Rebbes who were in New York. He took me to Satmar and Klausenberg and then, in 1965, he introduced me to Lubavitch.

I was about twelve years old, and we came in from Manhattan by train. We arrived early, and the place was empty, but then all of a sudden, at 8:30 PM a huge crowd began to arrive. This was before 770 was expanded, so I had to push and shove to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe. I remember that he had a small, blackish-gray beard. At one point, the chasidim were all singing the Belarusian song Nye Zhuritzi and the Rebbe stood up for a couple of minutes to encourage the ecstatic singing – as he waved his hand, the building shook. That was my first impression, and it was like nothing I had seen before.

A few years later, I was studying at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School (RJJ). It is the oldest yeshivah in America, and at the time, it was on the Lower East Side, which is where we lived. A Lubavitcher named  Reb Leibel Schapiro used to come by the yeshivah to teach a class on the Tanya, and he set up an audience with the Rebbe for my father and my brothers.

We came on a cold Thursday night, deep into the winter, and only got into the Rebbe’s room after 1:00 AM. As soon as the secretary opened the door for us, the Rebbe got out of his chair and came to greet us, which struck me. He was extremely friendly, and when we sat down, he began speaking in English.

We were brought up speaking Yiddish and so, out of everyone, I interjected to say that – ich farshtay Yiddish – and the Rebbe switched to Yiddish.

Over the next few years, we met with the Rebbe a couple more times and we brought him numerous questions of consequence in our lives. (more…)

Mrs. Rivka Feldman

22 December 2022

When my mother, Mrs. Miriam Popack, was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1920s and 1930s, there was no formal Jewish education for girls. While her brothers went to a yeshivah, she went to public school.

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Most of the children in her public school were Jewish, and almost all of the staff members were as well, but when they got to school they wanted to fit in and be like everyone else. They celebrated the non-Jewish holidays and sang the non-Jewish songs; the mentality was that you don’t talk about being Jewish when you’re outside the home. One December, there was a very progressive Jewish teacher who decided that with all the trees decorating the school, she would bring in a menorah. But instead of being happy or excited, the students were embarrassed by it. That was what the atmosphere was like.

In her high school years, the Bais Yaakov girls’ school came over from Poland, opening up a branch in Williamsburg, and my mom began going there after school. It began to instill in her a pride for Judaism.

After my mother married my father, she became fully introduced to Chabad. A few years after that, in the 1950s the Rebbe decided it was time to establish N’shei Chabad – the organization for Chabad women and girls — and my mother immediately became very active within it. Although she had her roots in Bais Yaakov, her closeness to Chabad gave her a new perspective on the role of Jewish women. She already knew that the Jewish woman is the foundation of her home, but the Rebbe took it a step further.

He explained that women were supposed to be “neirot l’ha’ir” – luminaries, whose influence extends beyond their own homes. It’s not enough if your candle is lit; you need to kindle the next person’s light. The Rebbe brought this out in Jewish women across the globe, by establishing N’shei Chabad. My mother began arranging women’s conventions, speaking publicly and teaching. “You wouldn’t believe it,” my mom would say, “but I used to be shy!” This was the environment that I was born into. (more…)

Rabbi Gershon Lerman

13 December 2022

My family moved to Crown Heights when I was five years old, and from that point on, pretty much everything revolved around the Rebbe. We prayed with the Rebbe in 770, attended his farbrengens, and included him in our personal events. If someone was celebrating a bar mitzvah or a wedding, they would give a bottle of spirits to the Rebbe’s secretaries on Friday. Then at the farbrengen on Shabbat, the Rebbe would call them over, mix some of his wine into the bottle and hand it over to them, so it could be used at the event, while giving them a blessing. If it was within the week after a wedding, the traditional Sheva Brachot blessings would also be recited at the farbrengen, in honor of the new couple.

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At some point, however, maybe because the community got too big, people stopped handing in those bottles, and having the Sheva Brachot at a farbrengen became less common as well.

My wife Ella and I got married in 1983, the day after Yom Kippur. The following day we were scheduled to have a celebratory Sheva Brachot meal at a restaurant.

That day, Rabbi Hodakov, the Rebbe’s secretary, called my father-in-law, Reb Hirshel Chitrik, with an inquiry: The Rebbe, he said, wanted to make a farbrengen that night; would we be okay with holding our Sheva Brochot at the farbrengen? This was totally unexpected but of course the answer was yes. So, we finished up our meal at the restaurant earlier than planned and then we all rushed over to 770 to make it to the farbrengen on time.

Towards the end of the farbrengen, the Rebbe introduced the Sheva Brachot with an explanation. He began by referring to the great merit involved in participating in a wedding celebration, and then said, “Since last night – for certain reasons which I was involved in – some people were unable to participate in a wedding taking place then, we should have the Sheva Brachot here.”

My wife’s grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Chitrik, then recited all seven of the traditional blessings, while I stood right near the Rebbe. It turned out that there was another couple getting married that night, and so they also had their Sheva Brachot after we did. It was an amazing experience, especially since in those days it wasn’t really done anymore. (more…)

Rabbi Leibel Altein

7 December 2022

When the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe escaped from Warsaw in 1940, he was forced to leave his precious collection of books behind. Part of the library was rescued the following year, but the rest of it was lost for the next few decades. In 1977, a large portion of the books was discovered in a museum in Warsaw, and they were redeemed and brought to America.

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A few months later, the Rebbe declared his intention to create an institution to publish and distribute the manuscripts of chasidic texts contained in the collection, and called for volunteers to get involved.

One of these manuscripts was a Tanya, the basis work of Chabad philosophy, authored by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe. Only this manuscript of the Tanya was different from the printed version we have; it was the first draft of the Tanya.

At that time, I was working for Vaad L’Hafotzas Sichos, transcribing, editing and publishing the Rebbe’s talks. Over the next couple years, a few items from the collection began to see the light of day, and then, in the second half of 1981, the Rebbe wrote to the Vaad that we should undertake to print this original draft of the Tanya. (more…)

Rabbi Gedalya Axelrot

30 November 2022

My father was a wanted man in the Soviet Union. In 1936, after years of narrowly evading arrest for the crime of promoting Jewish observance, he fled and arrived in Israel. He settled in Ramat Gan, where he helped found the “Sukkat Shalom” synagogue and served as its rabbi. When he passed in 1960, his will included a request that I be chosen as his successor. I was only eighteen and a half years old at the time, shortly after receiving rabbinic ordination from a few prominent Israeli rabbis, among them Rabbi Shlomo Zevin.

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About three months later, I received a letter from the Rebbe, in which he expressed his condolences and support to myself and the rest of my family. I also heard from others that the Rebbe would ask about our welfare during those years, showing particular concern for my younger unmarried sisters.

In that same letter, the Rebbe encouraged me to keep the Chabad traditions of our shul; most of the congregants at that time were not Chabad chassidim, and had asked to omit the recital of the Tachanun prayer from Mincha, the daily afternoon service, as per the Sefard prayer rite. In this context, the Rebbe spoke of the special quality of Mincha, which made it an especially opportune time for the recitation of the Tachanun.

Beyond the customs of our shul, the Rebbe also took a keen interest in my official election to succeed my father as the rabbi of his synagogue, and he even worked behind the scenes to help in that regard. In several letters to Rabbi Zevin from that period, the Rebbe urged him to exert “all of his influence, with the utmost energy and strength,” toward this end.

Just before Rosh Hashanah of that year, my appointment was made official. Despite the many pressing matters weighing on him, the Rebbe took time out of his schedule on the day before Rosh Hashanah to write to the legendary mayor of Ramat Gan, Mr. Avraham Krinitzi, to personally thank him for the decisive role he played in my appointment. (more…)

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…)

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